The Longest Time

I went to bed early on Monday night, around ten, because I was tired, and woke up yesterday around four. I stayed in bed, and managed to drift back to sleep again, but was wide awake around five-thirty, so I decided to get out of bed and get my day started, figuring at the very least I’d be so tired last night I’d have no choice but to go to bed early. It worked; I was in bed just before ten, and am awake, shivering, at my computer this morning. It is twenty degrees outside this morning, and was so cold and windy and wintry last night we left the heat running overnight, which we never do. (Mainly for the outdoor cats; the vents run under the house so we figured they could shelter from the storm under the house and if they huddled near the vents they’d be warm.) I am going to brave the cold for the gym this morning; I can’t get over how much better I feel for one day of weight-lifting, stretching and cardio.

I also wrote a short story yesterday; rather, finished one I started Monday: “Neighborhood Alert.” I’m going to let it sit for a few days before looking at it again; I have some other writing and editing to do, and I find that letting things sit for a while is enormously helpful. I rather like the story, if I do say so myself. I am going to work on another one today as well–the title is “The Trouble with Autofill” (changed from “Sorry Wrong Email”) and of course, I have a lot of other writing to do. Heavy sigh. I do prefer being busy, though.

The Short Story Project continues apace. Last night, after an episode of Broadchurch, and before I went to bed, I read two stories, both from single-author collections from ChiZine Press (another bucket list item: be published in some form by ChiZine–they do wonderful stuff, and they publish my friend Michael Rowe), one by Christopher Golden, the other by Bracken MacLeod.

I read Bracken’s story first, from 13 Views of the Suicide Woods, “Still Day: An Ending”:

The morning breeze passed between the blanched, lifeless trees rising like fractured bones jutting from the forgotten marsh. The only sign of its passing, a light and silent ripple on the surface of the shallow water. The clear sky reflected brightly, blue above and blue below. The facets of the wind on water on water sparkled like diamonds in the light. A lone blue heron sailed from its nest, searching for something to eat, unconcerned with the line of traffic creeping by a hundred yards away. Drivers sat in their cars with the windows up and radios tuned to the recap of last night’s game at Fenway or NPR or empty morning talk, paying no attention to the wetlands beside them, staring ahead, squinting against the rising sun as they ate, shaved, checked e-mail, made calls, and put on make-up. All focused on the toad ahead, the day ahead, the growing anxiety of sitting still with so much to be done. Not a single one looked toward the trees or the water. They were blind to the calm and elegant wood that had once been living trees growing up over a hundred years. Before they were born, before the road was built, there was the fen and the trees and the water and sun above shining on it all.

The heron flew back to its nest unnoticed.

The woman lay in the water, unseen.

Nice, right? Bracken wrote one of my favorite novels of the last few years, Stranded, which was a Stoker Award finalist I believe and seriously, one of the might chilling and terrifying things I’ve read in years. I’m really looking forward to his next novel. I have a previous work of his somewhere in my TBR pile, Mountain Home, which I need to get to as well. ANyway, this story, which is incredibly short, and may not even be a thousand words, opens this collection and it’s beautiful and sad and a lovely contrast between the magic of nature and the artificial construct of human life; the rushing around like busy little bees in our hive and how we ignore what’s around us; also the startling contract between those who are alive in traffic and the peaceful, dead woman floating nearby, unnoticed, in the water. We don’t know anything about the woman, or how she wound up in the water like the Lady of Shallott, but is she any more dead than those stuck in traffic and not noticing the world around them, so focused as they are on what’s to come rather than what’s around them? An excellent start to this collection; I am looking forward to reading more of these stories.

I’ve also been enjoying Christopher Golden’s work; I greatly enjoyed Ararat and Dead Ringers, and Snowblind is in my TBR. I had read one of his stories, the first one, in this collection from ChiZine Tell My Sorrow To The Stones, “All Aboard,” during one of my past years’ Short Story Months, and greatly enjoyed it; last night I read “Under Cover of Night.”

Long past midnight, Carl Weston sat in a ditch in the Sonoran Desert with his finger on the trigger of his M16, waiting for something to happen. Growing up, he’d always played Army, dreamed about traveling around the world and taking on the bad guys–the black hats who ran dictatorships, invaded neighboring countries, or tried exterminating whole subsets of the human race. That was what soldiering was all about. Taking care of business. Carrying the big stick and dishing out justice.

The National Guard may not be the army, but he had a feeling the end result wasn’t much different. Turned out the world wasn’t made up of black hats and white hats, and the only way to tell who was on your side was looking at which way their guns were facing. Weston spent thirteen months in the desert in Iraq, and for the last three he’d been part of a unit deployed to the Mexican border to back up the Border Patrol.

One fucking desert to another. Some of the guys he knew had been stationed in places like El Paso and San Diego. Weston would’ve killed for a little civilization. Instead he got dirt and scrub, scorpions and snakes, land so ugly even the Texas Rangers had never spent that much time worrying about it.

This a well-crafted story about a combined National Guard/Border Patrol/DEA operation about stopping illegal aliens smuggling drugs into the country. Golden captures the voice of Weston perfectly; the grunt with no illusions about who he is or what his job entails, seeing no glory in shooting and killing people but it’s just a job to him. His relationship with the rookie he shares a ditch with at the start of the story, Brooksy, is perfectly rendered–can he trust the trigger happy fool with the crazy eyes who thinks gunfire is beautiful? And the raid begins, but something else even more horrifying is going on than the shootings and arrests and poor souls being forced by a drug cartel to mule cocaine or heroin across the border (they are doomed either way–the cartel herders will kill them or they’ll fall into the hands of the DEA)–there are screams crossing the desert night, and soon Weston becomes aware there is something else out there in the darkness with them, something infinitely more terrifying.

The suspense builds beautifully, and the denouement…well, it’s a lot more horrifying, and says so much that needs to be said, than I was expecting. Brilliantly done.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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Head over Heels

Well, I survived yesterdays’ trip to Metairie and Target (shudder) and also spent way more money than I should have; which of course is part of the Target trap. But none of the money was wasted and it was all things we will use, and things we needed. So there’s that. I’m still flummoxed, though, at how much I spent. Heavy heaving sigh.

I wasn’t sore at all from my workout Sunday yesterday, although I did start feeling tired/sleepy early in the evening. I wrote two thousand words of a short story I got the idea for while watching Broadchurch Sunday evening (we finished season two, and started season three last night); the show and the story are kind of linked as the show gave me the idea for the story; it’s called “Neighborhood Warning” and the story really flowed, at least until I started getting sleepy. AT that point I retired to my easy chair to read; I worked on the Short Story Project while waiting for Paul to come home. I read  “Safety Rules” by Jill D. Block from Lawrence Block’s anthology Alive in Shape and Color.

Day One

This was my third time, and I knew exactly what to expect. I got downtown early, so I had time to stop at Starbucks when I got off the subway. I was upstairs, in the appointed room, at 8:55. I found a seat, took out my magazine, flipped past the fashion ads, and was already pretty well into Graydon Carter’s piece on Trump by the time things got started. The lady told us to tear our cards along the perforated fold, and after she collected the bottom piece, she turned on the instructional video.

I wasn’t at all surprised when a court officer came into the room, about thirty minutes after the video ended, to call for the first group. I knew the drill–twenty or twenty-five of us would be taken up to a courtroom where they’d be selecting a jury. Everyone else would stay here, and other groups would be called for throughout the day and maybe into tomorrow. Three days tops, and I’d have done my civic duty. I hoped that I would be called in this first group–early in, early out. Maybe I’d even have time to look for boots before I headed uptown.

Veronica Ellis, our main character, is following the rules; summoned for jury duty, she assumes it’s going to be the same as it always has been before. But this time is different, and she starts paying more attention as she realizes a lot more people have been called than she is used to, and soon enough the jury pool finds out that their case is the 1978 kidnapping and murder of Milo Richter, a young boy and the person who may have committed the crime at long last is being brought to trial. The Richter case is famous, but has even more resonance for Veronica–when she was young, around the same time as the Richter case, her best childhood friend Micheline was kidnapped and murdered. At first, Veronica sees that is a kind of karmic justice–she is meant to serve on this jury, as a way of getting justice for Micheline…but then she begins to wonder if she actually should serve on this jury. Block skillfully juggles her timelines between the present day going through the motions of jury duty with Veronica remembering Micheline and what happened when she was a little girl. I was totally sucked into this story, and enjoyed it very much.

I also read Barry Hannah’s “Testimony of Pilot,” from his collection Airships.

When I was ten, eleven and twelve, I did a good bit of my play in the backyard of a three-story wooden house my father bought and rented out, his first venture into real estate. We lived right across the street from it, but over here was the place to do your real play. Here there was a harrowed but overgrown garden, a vine-swallowed fence at the back end, and beyond the fence a cornfield which belonged to someone else. This was not the country. This was the town, Clinton, Mississippi between Jackson on the east and Vicksburg on the west. On this lot stood a few water oaks, a few plum bushes, and much overgrowth of honeysuckle vine. At the very back end, at the fence, stood three strong nude chinaberry trees.

I’ve always felt my lack of appreciation for the talents of Barry Hannah an obvious intellectual failure on my part. This edition of Airships, which was originally published in 1978, had an introduction–or rather, an “appreciation”–by Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Ford; the collections itself won the PEN/Malamud Award back when I was just graduating from high school. I bought my first copy of this collection back in the early 1980’s, when I was attending Fresno City College after flunking out of school in Kansas, to try to get my GPA up to a level that would warrant admission into the California State University system. I took another Creative Writing class there, after my first horrible attempt in Kansas, and there I found an instructor who not only believed in me and my talents, but actively encouraged me to take writing up as a profession; several of the stories I wrote for his class he encouraged me to submit to magazines and professional journals. None of those stories ever saw print, of course, but I always appreciated him as a teacher. He was very into Barry Hannah and Raymond Carver (the other text for the class besides Airships was Carver’s Will You Please Be Quiet Please), and while I could see why, at the time, he appreciated and loved Hannah’s writing style so much, it didn’r work for me. We were asked to read the story “Love Too Long” to discuss in class; the rest was independent reading, and after “Love Too Long” I never picked the book up again. Hannah didn’t resonate with me. I bought another copy of this book last year, along with Hannah’s novel Geronimo Rex when I was looking at Southern Gothic literature; I found a list of Southern Gothic writers somewhere and Hannah was listed. I thought, perhaps I can appreciate him now and bought the two books.

One of the things that has to be addressed right off the bat is the racism and homophobia in this story. I didn’t address the issue of racism in Faulkner’s story “Barn Burning” yesterday; primarily because the use of the n-word was only in dialogue and was only used in dialogue by the character of the asshole redneck father; it worked in that instance, even as it was jarring to read for me, and while Faulkner used the word “Negro” to refer to people of color in the text, at the time the story was written that was the commonly accepted, socially acceptable word to use. But Hannah’s character is very much a racist and very much a homophobe; the words fag and queer are used in this story as casually as the n-word. This automatically renders the main character of this story unlikable to me, and likewise unrelatable; I am predisposed to dislike him and he gets none of my sympathy. In fact, nothing he does in this story makes him sympathetic in any way. Maybe that was what Hannah was trying to do in this story, but I couldn’t help but think, as I read it, that the story was loosely slapped together and in a strong need of editorial guidance. I’m still not even sure what the point of the story was. The story opens when the main character is a kid, with his psychotic neighbor kid launched M-80’s from a makeshift cannon at a house where people of color live (lovely); turns out they are sending them at the wrong house and the kid who lives there for some reason comes across the field to tell them to stop and for some reason brings his saxophone with him–I guess that’s because it’s something kids would do? They launch an M-80 at him and injure him without much remorse. He then becomes friends with the main character when they are both in the high school band and the story keeps following them from point to point until the sax-player, Arden Quadberry, winds up a fighter pilot in the Nacy during Vietnam and…I guess this is a slice of life story.

It was originally published in Esquire, which paid what would be considered a lot of money now, let alone in the 1970’s, for short fiction.  Maybe Hannah was a writer of his time, who hasn’t aged well–Richard Ford notwithstanding–but it’s just more of the straight white cisgender male macho posturing to me, and his literary word choices/flourishes just don’t work for me, which is clearly my own failing; I ‘d rather read a genre short story than something like this. I’ll continue to read Hannah, hoping to have that aha moment where his genius will reveal itself to me–after all, they’re short stories so it’s not a colossal time suck if I never get it–but yeah, I just don’t get it.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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Round and Round

So, I did it. I went to the gym yesterday for the first time in months, and God knows when the last time I went without a trainer appointment. I am very proud of myself for taking this first step, and I have to remember to stay motivated. It felt fantastic. I’d forgotten how great endorphins feel. I went in, and did some stretches before heading to the weight machines. I went all the back to my origins (something I seem to be doing a lot this year), and started doing my work outs the way I did when I first got back in shape way back in 1995: a full body workout (chest, back, shoulders, biceps, triceps, leg press, and calf raises, then abs and cardio) and did low weights, tried to not overdo it, and only did one set of 15 on everything. I will go up to two sets of everything on the fourth workout; three sets on the seventh, and up the weights on the tenth, and then on every fourth thereafter. I am not concerned about gaining size; this is more of a cardiovascular than strength workout. Maybe by the summer I might change to something more muscle building, but any workout with weights is going to gain some size. I’d like to hit my goal weight of 200 by July; we shall see. I also am not certain what that is going to do to my build, to be honest. But I can adapt…and posting publicly about this is also going to shame me into being more consistent.

And this morning I still feel good; I can tell I exercised, but am not sore. Yay! SO lovely to know I am doing it right. It’s hard to believe that it’s been so long since I learned about the body and how to exercise properly. I wonder–yes, I just googled my old gym in Tampa; it closed in 2003 and was still owned by the same person when it closed as when it opened. Good ole Metroflex and Alan. When I wrote Murder in the Rue Dauphine I based the gym Chanse worked out at on Metroflex; I even named the manager Alan. I’d completely forgotten about that until just now….

We watched I, Tonya last night and really enjoyed it. I have a lot of thoughts about it, but I’m going to let them digest for a few days before I post about it. The cast is excellent, and I think the movie is, too.

I have lots I want to get done on this holiday Monday; I am making an excursion to Metairie, and have lots of writing to do, and lots of editing, and tons of emails to anwer and get caught up on.

The Short Story Project continues. Yesterday I read the first story in Sue Grafton’s Kinsey and Me, “Between the Sheets”:

I squinted at the woman sitting across the desk from me. I could have sworn she’d just told me there was a dead man in her daughter’s bed, which seemed like a strange thing to say, accompanied, as it was, by a pleasant smile and carefully modulated tone. Maybe I’d misunderstood.

It was nine o’clock in the morning, some ordinary day of the week. I was, I confess, hungover–a rare occurrence in my life. I do not drink often or much, but the night before I’d been at a birthday party for my landlord, Henry Pitts, who’d just turned eighty-two. Apparently the celebration had gotten out of hand because here I was, feeling fuzzy-headed and faintly nauseated, trying to look like an especially smart and capable private investigator, which is what I am when I’m in good form.

My name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m thirty-two years olds, divorced, a licensed P.I., running my own agency in a town ninety-five miles north of Los Angeles. The woman had told me her name was Emily Culpepper and that much made sense. She was very small, one of those women who at any age will be thought “cute,” God forbid. She had short dark hair and a sweet face and she looked like a perfect suburban housewife. She was wearing a pale blue blouse with a Peter Pan collar, a heather-colored Shetland sweater with grosgrain ribbon down the front, a heather tweed skirt, hose, and Capezios with a dainty heel, I guessed her to be roughly my age.

“Between the Sheets’ is a delight, if for no other reason than the fact that it’s actually a traditional mystery story; one that is solved by viewing the crime scene, interviewing people, and observing the clues left behind by the killer and making deductions. This is particularly fun because the Kinsey novels are hardboiled style private eye novels, tough with sparse prose and told from Kinsey’s slightly cynical, world-weary point of view. This short story, still in that voice, though, has several moments os humor, and could easily have been an Erle Stanley Gardner Perry Mason story, or an Agatha Christie–although Christie’s short stories always seemed to me to border on the noir side.

The other story I read was “Barn Burning” from The Collected Stories of William Faulkner, an enormous volume I’ve only occasionally dipped into:

The store in which the Justice of the Peace’s court was sitting smelled of  cheese. The boy, crouched on his nail keg at the back of the crowded room, knew he smelled cheese, and more: from where he sat he could see the ranked shelves close-packed with the solid, squat, dynamic shapes of tin cans whose labels his stomach read, not from the lettering which meant nothing to his mind but from the scarlet devils and the silver curve of fish–this, the cheese which he knew he smelled and the hermetic meat which his intestines believed he smelled coming in intermittent gusts momentary and brief between the other constant one, the smell and sense just a little but of fear because mostly of despair and grief, the old fierce pull of blood. He could not see the table where the Justice sat and before which his father and his father’s enemy (our enemy, he thought in that despair; ourn! mine and him both! He;s my father!) stood, but he could hear them, the two of them that is, because his father had said no word yet:

“But what proof have you, Mr. Harris?”

Faulkner is one of my all-time favorite writers; his “A Rose for Emily” is one of the greatest short stories ever written–if not the greatest–and both Sanctuary and The Sound and the Fury are works of art most writers can only aspire to. There’s no sentimentality in Faulkner, at least not to me; he doesn’t romanticize poverty, he doesn’t romanticize the rural Southern experience, nor does he write about heroic figures. He writes about damaged and flawed human beings, and while his work is called “Southern Gothic,” I’m not sure if gothic is the right word. For me at least the descriptor gothic conjures up an entirely different image and style of story and writing. Reading Faulkner reminds me of home, reminds me of relatives and summers spent in rural Alabama, of orange-meat watermelons and fireflies and  four o’clocks and screen doors and ticks on dogs and red dirt and big red Coca-Cola coolers with a bottle opener on the side. “Barn Burning” is told from the perspective of a young boy, Colonel Sartoris Snopes, and opens with his father being found not guilty, for lack of evidence, of burning the Harris barn after a dispute about a loose hog; but despite the lack of evidence the Snopes family is banished from the county and sent on their way to the next sharecropping farm, where things go bad yet again, but this time Sarty can’t let it happen. It’s about learning the difference between right and wrong, and learning that sometimes loyalty to blood simply because of blood isn’t enough. It’s a terrific story, with great imagery and beautiful language use, and yes, reminded me of my long love affair with Faulkner’s work. He’s not easy to read by any means; but so worth the effort.

And now,  back to the spice mines.

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Pink Houses

Another cold morning in New Orleans. The Saints are up in Minneapolis playing the Vikings today, with the winner going to the NFC championship game to play Philadelphia in Philadelphia, so I shouldn’t complain about how cold it is here! I am hoping to finish cleaning the kitchen this morning so I have to time to go lift weights for the first time since AUGUST before the game. And stretch, and do some cardio. I am taking this get back in shape goal for this year seriously, Constant Reader.

I also didn’t read a short story yesterday, but I started reading one of the Kinsey Millhone stories in Kinsey and Me, and it’s quite good; I look forward to finishing it today during the game, and reading another to get back on track. But I am doing much better this year on the Short Story Project than I ever have in past years, and I have so many short story collections and anthologies to choose from; which is part of the reason I decided to make 2018 the year of the short story. I was also inspired yesterday to start writing two short stories–“Sorry Wrong Email” (which is going to take a lot of work to get right) and “Neighborhood Warning”, which I think can be really really good. I also want to work on finishing the final draft of another short story today, and this week I need to start reading the submissions for Sunny Places Shady People. With no offense to my Blood on the Bayou contributors, I think this one might be even better, I also need to finish an interview for my Sisters newsletter column (basically, writing the introduction and putting the questions in the proper order for flow) and I also need to work on my two manuscripts, and of course the Scotty Bible languishes. Heavy heaving sigh, the work of a Gregalicious is never done. I also want to read a novel; another goal for the year is getting the TBR pile down to a workable size. Tomorrow I am going to Target, and probably going to make it Leg Day at the gym in the afternoon (I have a long work day on Tuesday, so I can’t do an every other day; the nice thing about Leg Day is no cardio; just stretch, do legs, and some abs).

I watched the 1970 film Airport yesterday, based on the Arthur Hailey novel, it was one of the year’s biggest hits and was nominated for lots of Academy Awards, and even got great reviews. It was also the movie that kicked off the ‘disaster movie’ trend of the 1970’s, and spawned several sequels. The opening sequence of the movie was pretty interesting, as they showed all the ticket counters for the various airlines at “Lincoln International” in Chicago; obviously a stand-in for O’Hare. What made it interesting was how none of the airlines whose counters were shown, or were mentioned in the PA announcements over the opening credits (Continental Airlines Flight 220 is now boarding) exist anymore: Northwest, Eastern, TWA, Continental, Braniff, Pan Am. It’s hard to imagine today, with our limited choices, but just twenty years ago they were a lot of options.

The movie had, as all these types of films usually did, what was called an ‘all-star cast’; Oscar winners Burt Lancaster, George Kennedy, Van Heflin, and Helen Hayes (who would win a second Oscar for her role); as well as other bankable stars as Dean Martin and Jean Seberg; newcomer Jacqueline Bisset, stunningly beautiful who would hit major stardom later in the decade in The Deep; stage actress Maureen Stapleton in one of her first roles and who would later win an Oscar of her own; and assorted others (Gary Collins, for example) in small parts early in their career. The premise of the film is simple: a major airport is in the throes of a several day long snowstorm; it was inspired by the blizzard of the winter of 1966 (which I remember), and how the airport operates in such a crisis, and the personal stories of the airport employees intercrossed with those of several people who pass through the airport. Burt Lancaster plays Mel Bakersfeld, general manager of the airport, who is married to his job and ignores his wife and family as a result. His marriage to Cindy (Dana Wynter) is in shambles, and he’s strongly attracted to the widowed Tanya Livingston (Jean Seberg) who is some sort of manager for Trans Global Airlines (her job is never really defined in the movie; it certainly was in the book–Hailey was nothing if not thorough). They of course don’t act on their attraction, but it’s there–and she is considering a transfer to San Francisco and  ‘fresh start’ since they have no future. He fights with his wife several times on the phone, mostly to show how unreasonable she is–obviously his job should come before his wife and family! Dean Martin plays asshole pilot Vernon Demerest, who also happens to be Mel’s brother-in-law, married to Mel’s sister (played by Barbara Hale, best known for playing Della Street on the original Perry Mason series). He’s a great pilot, but a dick–and he and Mel disagree frequently about airport operations, etc. He’s also having an affair–the latest of many–with co-worker Gwen Meighan (Jacqueline Bisset), who tells him before they work their flight to Rome that she’s pregnant–including the icy line “You can stop twisting your wedding ring, I know you’re married”–which in turn doesn’t really either of them sympathetic. The head of Customs and Immigration’s niece is also going to be on the Rome flight…as it soon becomes apparent that this particular flight is going to be the film’s focus and everyone’s paths are going to cross in some way regarding Trans Global Flight 22, The Golden Argosy. Helen Hayes plays Ada Quonsett, an older woman who stows away on flights to try to visit her daughter and grandchildren in New York, caught and being sent back to Los Angeles, but she manages to evade her watcher and sneak aboard Flight 22. Also on the flight is D. O. Guerrero, a bankrupt failure with mental problems and lots of debts who also happens to be a demolitions expert, and his briefcase, which contains a bomb. He wants to blow up the plane so his wife (coffee shop waitress Inez, played by Maureen Stapleton) will collect on his flight insurance. (He’s played by Van Heflin.) This is before security, metal detectors, etc., and the rash of hijackings in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s started the change to tighter airport security (so many New York to Florida flights were hijacked and redirected to Havana that it became a joke in the zeitgeist; “my flight was hijacked to Cuba.'” Of course, after the flight takes off it becomes apparent to those on the ground that he must have a bomb; the flight crew tries to get it from him with the end result he sets it off in the bathroom, blowing a hole in the side of the plane and causing explosive decompression. Gwen was trying to get into the bathroom to him when the bomb goes off and experiences severe injuries. The damaged plane has to return to Chicago as all other airports are closed; and of course, the issue of the big runway being blocked by a plane stuck in the snow that opens the movie now becomes crucial; the plane must be moved because the damaged aircraft needs as much room as possible to land, since its rudder, and steering are damaged which means the brakes might be as well.

Complicated, right? Of course the plane gets moved, and the flight lands safely. Mel’s wife admits she is having an affair and wants a divorce, and it looks like asshole Vern might do the right thing with Gwen after all. At least if Mel and Tanya get involved, they’ll be together at the airport all the time, although as they prepare to drive off together at the end, there’s another crisis…but this time Mel says “let him handle it” which means…what, exactly? He’s not going to be a workaholic anymore?

The acting in the movie isn’t good, but then again they aren’t really given a lot to work with. Hailey’s books probably don’t hold up, but they were huge bestsellers in their day–I read them all. He always focused on an industry or business–medicine, hotels, airports, hospitals, banks, power companies–did a lot of research, and then wrote enormous, sprawling books that not only showed how the businesses worked but told melodramatic stories about the people who worked there or were involved somehow. His novel Hotel was also filmed, and then turned into a Love Boat like weekly television series in the 1980’s; in the book and movie the St. Gregory Hotel was in New Orleans (based on the Monteleone, actually), in the TV show it was moved to San Francisco. The book, written in the 1960’s, also dealt with racial issues; I should really reread both it and Airport. The Moneychangers, which was about banking, I read when I worked for Bank of America, and I was amazed at how spot-on he got working in a bank. I should reread Airport to see how different airports were in the 1960’s than they were in the 1990’s, when I worked for Continental. But his male leads, who usually ran the business, were Ayn Rand-ian style supermen: married to their jobs, good at them, and devoted to the point there was no room in their lives for a personal life, which also kind of made them unlikable.

But back to the film–as corny and badly acted as it was, despite the terrible dialogue, they did a really great job of building up the suspense about the bomb as well as would the plane be able to land safely; and since that was the most important part of the film, it worked on that level. It was also hard to not laugh a bit from time to time, having seen the spoof Airplane! so many times I can speak the dialogue along with the movie when watching; it’s weird seeing this stuff not being played for laughs  (although Airplane! was primarily based on Zero Hour! with elements from Airplane 1975. In an interesting aside, Arthur Hailey did the novelization of Zero Hour!, which was called Runway Zero-Eight). It was also interesting seeing how much things have changed since this film was made: divorce isn’t the societal horror it was back then; people don’t stay in bad marriages “for the sake of the children” anymore; abortion wasn’t legal in the US when the film was made so Gwen’s abortion would have to be in Sweden, if she chose to have one; and of course, all the changes in airport security. The plane itself was a Boeing 707; which aren’t used anymore. Stowaways can’t really get onto planes anymore, either.

Plus, back in the day the concept that airline crews were boozing and sexing it up all the time, and that flight attendants (then stewardesses) were good time girls fucking every pilot they could lure into their clutches was such a stereotype–one the airlines actually bought into because they had age, size and looks standards for the women, and ran print and television ads playing up the sexiness of their stewardesses–that it took years for that to be changed…and it still exists to a certain extent.

It was certainly not something I learned from the Vicki Barr Stewardess mystery series for kids! I’ve always wanted to write a crime series about a flight attendant–kind of an update of Vicki Barr but not for kids–but can never really figure out how to make it work. Maybe someday.

Back to the spice mines! The kitchen ain’t going to clean itself!

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Wrapped Around Your Finger

The temperature took a dip here Thursday evening, and has kept falling, even further than was projected. That means the heat is on and my space heater is back at work here in the kitchen/office, as I try to get the kitchen cleaned and the bed linens laundered. I slept later than I’d intended this morning–not a big deal, just got me off to a later start on my day than I’d wanted–and am now in the process of getting the things done that were on my Saturday agenda. I remembered that the last cold snap, coupled with my illness, had knocked me off my daily abdominal workout plan, so I got that started again this afternoon after running my errands, and it really is amazing what a difference that makes. I have an errand to run on Monday, but tomorrow if I rise early enough to get the things done that I want to, I am going to venture out into the cold temperatures and head to the gym to lift weights, stretch, and get on the treadmill. (I have all those lovely films on Starz to watch; movies I want to rewatch and others–like Friday the 13th–that I’ve never seen. Yes, I’ve never seen any  of the Jason movies, can you believe that? Shame on me! Bad, bad Gregalicious!)

Also, when I was talking about watching The Towering Inferno, I neglected to mention that the film was based on two books (I am a firm believer in mentioning the source material; so many people don’t know films were based on books, which is a shame). Two novels about fires in skyscrapers were released in the same year, so when the film was being prepared Irwin Allen bought the screen rights to both books to protect against another similar, competitive film being made. The two books were The Tower by Richard Martin Stern (which I did read) and The Glass Inferno by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson (I didn’t see any need to read a second book about a fire in a skyscraper). Whew. I feel better having giving them credit now.

As you are probably aware, the Short Story Project is really proceeding apace. Last year I tried to read a short story a day for January; I am reading a lot more than two a day this year, particularly since I decided to expand the project to last the entire year. In fact, blogging only once a day (although I blogged twice yesterday) isn’t enough for me to devote an entire entry to simply one story; I am having to at the very least double them up per entry, and I am still getting behind on the blog entries! Madness!

But after these three stories, I am caught up through Saturday.

Whew! The pressure is so intense.

These next three stories, of course, are from Sarah Weinman’s anthology Troubled Daughters Twisted Wives. The first is Helen Nielsen’s “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree.”

It was exactly ten minutes before three when Loren returned to  her apartment. The foyer was empty–a glistening, white and black tile emptiness of Grecian simplicity which left no convenient nooks or alcoves where a late party-goer could linger with her escort in a prolonged embrace, or where the manager–in the unlikely event that he was concerned–could spy out the nocturnal habits of his tenants. Loren moved swiftly across the foyer, punctuating its silence with the sharp tattoo of her heels on the tile and the soft rustling of her black taffeta evening coat. Black for darkness; black for stealth. She stepped into the automatic elevator and pressed the button for the seventeenth floor. The door closed and the elevator began its silent climb. Only then did she breathe a bit easier, reassuring herself that she was almost safe.

There was an apex of terror, a crisis at which everything and every place became a pulsing threat. Loren wore her terror well.

Loren, you see, is a second wife; thoroughly organized and ruthlessly efficient as a secretary, she first became the other woman when he was married to another woman. When that marriage inevitably ended in divorce, Loren not only got her man but she also got a big promotion. But Loren, you see, has a secret past she doesn’t want her husband to know about, lest he might go back to his former wife. And when the man who knows her secrets shows up–in the company of the first wife–she knows she has to do something about it. So, thoroughly organized and ruthlessly efficient, Loren comes up with a plan. But…even the best planner can get caught off-guard by a twist of fate they never foresaw, never considered. And as the suspense rises, as does Loren’s paranoia and fear…well, what a fantastic story.

The next story is by Dorothy B. Hughes, the master of suspense who crafted such brillaint novels as In a Lonely Place, The Blackbirder, and The Expendable Man, amongst others. I can attest to the particular brilliance of the first and third mentioned novels; the middle is in my TBR pile. Her other books are sadly out of print, and hard to find; but I am on a quest to read her entire canon, and I will not be denied.

Her contribution in this collection is a strange little story called “Everybody Needs a Mink.”

One was dusty rose brocade, tranquil as an arras in a forsaken castle. One was a waterfall of gold, shimmering from a secret jungle cache. And there was, of course, the stiletto of black, cut to here and here–the practical one, as it would go everywhere–and she had the black evening slippers from last year, like new for they only went to the New Year’s Eve and Mardi Gras dances at the club, and the annual office executive dinner at the Biltmore. With her pearls, single strand, good cultured, Christmas present two years ago from Tashi–black and pearls, always good.

She selected the gold. She’d dash down to Florida and pick up a copper tan before the Christmas party, or maybe Hawaii. Or a week in Arizona, quite chic. She could buy gold slippers and hunky gold jewelry. When you were selecting, you didn’t have to think practical, you could let yourself go.

This is an excellent character study of the interior life of women, or at least this woman, shopping the before school sales for her children at a department store in Manhattan, pretending that she’s a socialite with money to burn, trying on clothes she couldn’t possible afford and pretending for a moment, before she has to get back to reality, get the sale items for her kids and catch the train to her little suburb north of the city, Larksville-nearly-on-the-Hudson and her life as a middle-class wife and mother who must scrimp and save…but she tries on a mink, encouraged by an older man. an eleven thousand dollar coat, which he buys for her without her knowledge and then disappears. Terrific stuff.

The last story to catch me up on the Short Story Project is a deeply disturbing little tale called “The Purple Shroud” by Joyce Carrington. Originally published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, it won the Edgar for Best Short Story for 1972. Dark, told in a distant, observational voice, it’s the kind of dark little story with a twist that would have been perfect for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Mrs. Moon threw the shuttle back and forth and pumped the treadles of the big four-harness loom as if her life depended on it. When they asked her what she was weaving so furiously, she would laugh silently and say it was a shroud.

“No, really, what is it?”

“My house needs new draperies,” Mrs. Moon would smile and the shuttle would fly and the beater would thump the newly woven threads tightly into place. The muffled, steady sounds of her craft could be heard from early morning until very late at night, until the sounds became an accepted and expected background noise and were only noticed in their absence.

Then they would say, “I wonder what Mrs. Moon is doing now.”

You see, every summer Mr. and Mrs. Moon come to an art colony at a remote lake in the woods, and Mrs. Moon weaves while her husband George instructs others in art, because he is the best instructor the art colony has ever had. But George has a bad habit of having affairs with young girl students at the colony every summer, ending them when it’s time to go home again, of course, and everyone knows and kind of feels sorry for Mrs. Moon, but this summer…this summer it’s different.

And now back to the spice mines.

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Time Will Reveal

Last night I got home from work early; after stopping at the grocery store to alleviate some of the errands I must run today. I cleaned the living room and worked on organizing the books some, did some laundry, and did the living room floor, as well as laundered the living room blankets and vacuumed the love seat and my easy chair. Mindless chores, as I mentioned on both my panels at Comic Con last weekend, are marvelous for brainstorming and thinking; which I did a lot of. The Short Story Project is also inspiring me, which is really cool, too. The Facebook ban is freeing me up to do a lot more reading, a lot more brainstorming, and so really, I have to thank not only the Puritan trash who keep reporting my pictures of shirtless men but the equally puritanical censors at Facebook, whose word is law and cannot be questioned. As I mused early on in the ban, all this is really succeeding in doing is breaking me of the Facebook habit. How horrible! What a punishment!

Assholes.

So, last night I repaired to my easy chair once I had made myself something to eat and the living room was cleaned and organized. I started looking through my Amazon Prime app on the Apple TV–I can’t tell you how nice it is to have that app now, so I don’t have to switch over to the Prime function of the TV, which doesn’t work as well–and realized that I had subscriptions to both Acorn and Starz through it! I found a bunch of wonderful movies that I’d like to see again, or haven’t seen and want to, on the Starz menu; likewise for some series on Acorn. I settled in with my book and started watching The Towering Inferno, which I had actually never seen. Highly entertaining, badly acted, and starring a smorgasbord of Oscar winners and other interesting casting choices (O.J. Simpson! Mike Lookinland! Soap diva Susan Flannery! Susan Blakely! Richard Chamberlain! Robert Vaughn!), I kept rolling my eyes at the terrible dialogue and immensely stupid situations, not to mention the insane solutions to the fire they kept coming up with–um, it was an electrical fire; yes by all means use water so people will get electrocuted. 

Seriously.

I also noticed a rather obvious theme that runs through all disaster movies–human hubris, and human greed and incompetence always seem to play a part in the disaster. To bring the construction in under budget, Richard Chamberlain cut corners in safety features  as well as in the specifications for electrical wiring. In The Poseidon Adventure the ship is top-heavy because they didn’t take on enough ballast-in fact, removing some–to try to make it to their final port on time as they are running behind; which of course made the ship prone to capsizing in the case of a tidal wave. But next up on my Starz viewing is the 1969 film Airport, based on the Arthur Hailey novel and the blockbuster hit that really kicked the Disaster Movie craze of the 1970’s off–even though the movie is about more than just the imperiled airplane. I’ve not seen this movie, or reread the book, since I myself worked for an airline at an airport; this could make it really interesting.

As for the Short Story Project, I may have mentioned sometime this week that I discovered a collection of Ross MacDonald short stories on my shelves that I’d forgotten I had, The Archer Files.  I read the first two stories in that collection this week. I came to MacDonald rather late in life; I became aware of him in the 1970’s, but his book covers, with their lurid scantily clad women and back cover blurbs that promised machismo and tough guy behavior, didn’t interest me. I didn’t start reading MacDonald until years later, when Christopher Rice recommended him on a panel we both were on. I’d come to love John D. MacDonald in the 1970’s, and so I decided to give Ross a whirl. I think the first one I read was The Drowning Pool, and after that, I was completely in on Ross MacDonald. I have also come to a great appreciation for the extraordinary talent that was his wife, Margaret Millar…I love to imagine what their dinner conversation was like.

the archer files

The two stories, “Find the Woman” and “Death by Water,” were not originally written or published as Archer stories; they were adapted and turned into Archer stories later, after MacDonald was dead and this was authorized by the estate. The stories work as Archer stories, which is really all that matters. I’ve not yet read any of his non-Archer novels, but some of them are in the TBR pile; I’ll be curious to see if there’s a stylistic difference, or a significant change in voice.

I sat in my brand-new office with the odor of paint in my nostrils and waited for something to happen. I had been back on the Boulevard for one day. This was the beginning of the second day. Back in the window, flashing in the morning sun, the traffic raced and roared with a noise like battle. It made me nervous. It made me want to move. I was all dressed up in civilian clothes with no place to go and nobody to go with.

Then Millicent Breen came in.

I had seen her before, on the Strip with various escorts, and knew who she was; publicity director for Tele-Pictures. Mrs. Dreen was over forty and looked it, but there was electricity in her, plugged into to a secret source that time could never wear out. Look how high and tight I carry my body, her movements said. My hair is hennaed but comely, said her coiffure, inviting not to conviction but to suspension of disbelief. Her eyes were green and inconstant like the sea. They said what the hell.

That is how “Find the Woman” opens, and what a great example of the hardboiled, noirish style of crime writing. Not a lot of words, not a lot of sentences, and yet we get a strong sense of Archer’s character, just out of the war and chafing restlessly at his new life and existence, and the danger inherent in Millicent Breen. She is beautiful, older, sexy and dangerous; she wants Archer to find her daughter, a movie starlet who has disappeared, and this leads Archer into the  dangerous world of movie stars and film people, of love gone astray and a slightly sexist depiction of restless women who might love but need someone in their bed every night. I enjoyed it, not only as an example of the writing style but as a time capsule; it was easy to picture this in black-and-white, with Bogart as Archer and maybe Myrna Loy as Millicent Breen.

He was old, but he didn’t look as if he were about to die. For a man of his age, which couldn’t have been less than seventy, he was doing very well for himself. He was sitting at the bar buying drinks for three young sailors, and he was the life of the party in more than the financial sense. In the hour or so that I  had been watching him, he must have had at least five martinis, and it was long past dinner time.

“The old man can carry his liquor,” I said to Al.

“Mr. Ralston you mean? He’s in here every night from eight to midnight, and it never seems to get him down. Of course some nights he gets too much, and I have to take him home and put him to bed. But next day he’s bright as ever.”

And so begins “Death by Water.” Again, note the writing style; the sparse use of words to get a point across, the inherent toughness in the words chosen and how they are put together. Mr. Ralston ends up dead later on, of course; drowned in the swimming pool, and Archer is on the case. It’s a great little crime procedural, with Archer taking mental notes as he talks to witnesses and the people involved, and once the case is actually solved, it’s pretty clear that the solution was right there in front of our faces all along. Well done!

And now, back to the spice mines with me. Paul’s going into the office, I have some errands to run, and we’re going to go see I, Tonya tonight; I intend to do a deep, overdue cleaning of the kitchen today as well, around writing and editing.

 

Church of the Poison Mind

Sue Grafton very famously said that if you want something, you have to voice that desire out loud; say it to someone.

It’s very strange; we are often taught–at least I was–that ambition in slight moderation is a good thing, but over-weaning ambition is a bad thing. I was taught that bragging is unbecoming; because if you truly did something well or a great job at something, you wouldn’t need to boast, would you? This was drilled into my head for as long as I can remember: you get complimented, you don’t brag, and if you do get complimented, you are gracious and self-deprecating.

This is so deeply ingrained in me that it is very hard for me to be ambitious, or share my ambitions with anyone; it’s hard for me to take pride in what I’ve accomplished; and I always look for a way to turn any compliment into a “if I can do it, anyone can” kind of thing.

Another friend of mine thinks daily affirmations is also a way to get what you want; if you say what you want out loud to your mirror (or your computer, whatever), you can create the kind of mindset that will help you attain your goals. I wrote some out last year, at the beginning of the year, but after a few weeks I started feeling self-conscious about doing it, kind of silly, and I stopped.

Self-defeating, isn’t it?

So, in the interests of breaking this cycle, and of getting better at taking compliments and believing more in myself, here are some goals I want to achieve:

I will take my career to go to the next level.

I will get an agent.

I will write reviews for the New York Times.

I will sell short stories to high paying markets.

I will get a story selected for the Best American Mystery Short Stories series.

I will get a short story published as part of the Bibliophile series.

I will win a major writing award.

Whew. I already feel like writing all the down is going to jinx me in some way. NO NEGATIVITY NO NEGATIVE THOUGHTS.

So, there’s that. I’ve also made some great progress on the Short Story Project, including “Dear Penthouse Forum (A First Draft” and “The Babysitter’s Code.”

You won’t believe this, but this really did happen to  me just last fall, and all because I was five minutes late, which seemed like a tragedy at the time. “It’s only five minutes,” that’s what I kept telling the woman behind the counter, who couldn’t be bothered to raise her gaze from her computer screen and make eye contact with me. Which is too bad, because I don’t need much to be charming, but I need something to work with. Why did they make so many keystrokes, anyway, these ticket clerks? What’s in the computer that makes them frown so? I had the printout for my e-ticket, and I kept shoving it across the counter, and she kept pushing it back to me with the tip of a pen, the way I used to with my roommate Bruce’s dirty underwear, when we were in college. I’d rounded it up with a hockey stick and stashed it in the corner, just to make a pathway through our dorm room. Bruce was a goddamn slob.

“I’m sorry,” she said, stabbing that one key over and over. “There’s just nothing I can do for you tonight.”

And so begins yet another delightful Laura Lippman story, only written in the style of a letter to Penthouse Forum. That premise, very clever in and of itself, also makes the story a bit of a time capsule; does Penthouse and it’s sister digest of letters, Penthouse Forum Letters, even exist anymore? How long before no one even remembers their existence anymore? And why did I not ever try to write them? It was good money. But I am digressing. This clever story goes on to have our main character trapped in the Baltimore airport overnight; unable to swing the money for an airport hotel or can back to his apartment, and then a beautiful woman in her thirties shows up to not only save the day for him, but to entice him with the possibility of incredible, strings-free sex. (Which was pretty much the theme of every letter to Penthouse Forum; there were erotic flash fiction.) But being a Lippman story, there’s more going on than just incredible, no strings attached sex, and when the story turns, it’s unexpected and quite delightful.

This second story from Hardly Knew Her, “The Babysitter’s Code,” was originally published in Plots with Guns in 2005; and this is the period when Lippman moved from her delightful Tess Monaghan series (which I should reread) to writing her stand-alone thrillers; or literary fiction about crime, which is what they really should be described as. That broadening of her scope, and stretching of her talents, is very clear in this story.

The rules, the real ones, have seldom been written down, yet every girl knows them. (The boys who babysit don’t, by the way. They eat too much, they leave messes, they break vases while roughhousing with the kids, but the children adore the boys who babysit, so they still get invited back.) The rules are intuitive, as are most things governing the behavior of teenage girls. Your boyfriend may visit unless it’s explicitly forbidden, but the master bedroom is always off-limits, just as it would be in your own house. Eat what you like, but never break the seal on any bag or box. Whatever you do, try to erase any evidence of your presence in the house by evening’s end. The only visible proof of your existence should be a small dent on a sofa cushion, preferably at the far end, as if you were too polite to stretch across its entire length. No parent should come home and peer into the Pringles can–or the Snackwell’s box or the glass jar of the children’s rationed Halloween candy–and marvel at your capacity. There is nothing ruder that a few crumbs of chips at the bottom of a bag, rolled and fastened with one of those paper clips, or a single Mint Milano resting in the last paper cup.

This story is more of a character examination than an actual story, and it’s also slightly reminiscent of Raymond Carver’s “Neighbors,” and talks about an essential truth we all tend to really ignore: when someone is alone in our homes, whether they are watching our children or pet-sitting or cleaning, they are privy to our secrets. And this house has plenty of secrets, in this affluent suburb of Baltimore; secrets that are too hard for our young babysitter to resist, as she snoops through the lady of the house’s closet and underwear drawers, and observes the crumbling marriage of the wealthy homeowner, his much younger trophy wife, and their genetically damaged baby. This story is both wistful and sad, more so than suspenseful, although the fear of being caught is always there. It’s also a very insightful look at how a teenage girl’s mind works. Brava, Ms. Lippman, brava.

I also discovered a volume I’d forgotten, and was very excited to rediscover. I’d forgotten that one year Sue Grafton skipped a book in the Alphabet Series and instead published a short story collection, Kinsey and Me, and I am really looking forward to diving into it. Yay!

I am really enjoying the Short Story Project of 2018.

Here’s a hunk for you.

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