Separate Lives

Well, in typical Greg screw-up fashion, I screwed up this morning. I’d signed up to tour the local FBI office and attend two presentations, all of which I was looking forward to, but I had the time wrong. As Constant Reader knows, I am not good in the mornings. So, I thought I had to be there for nine a.m. No, everything started at nine a.m. I needed to be there for eight thirty. As I was getting ready to shave, I double-checked the address and noticed that on the agenda I needed to be there for eight thirty. It was eight-oh-five; I hadn’t shaved, showered, or dressed, let alone drive across town to the lake front. In other words, I wouldn’t been able, even if I hurried, to leave the house until it was time to be there, and then had to hurry to get there. Sigh. So, I made another cup of coffee and felt like a complete idiot.

And now have my morning free.

And before anyone says anything, no. I won’t show up late. I am not that person. It’s disrespectful to everyone who showed up on time, it’s disrespectful to the FBI, and if they want you to allow half an hour to clear security screening, then I need to be there half an hour ahead of time. Period. Plus, you don’t mess with the FBI. Trust me on this one.

Sigh. I hate when I fuck up. Especially after the chapter went to all the trouble to get this sorted out and put together.

Sigh.

I was really looking forward to it, too.

Anyway.

I finished watching season 2 of Versailles last night, and I have to say, it really ended well. You really can’t go wrong with the Affair of the Poisons and the involvement of the King’s mistress, Madame de Montespan, and her subsequent fall from glory. The show is incredibly well done, and they managed to get the character of the second Duchesse d’Orleans, Elisabeth Charlotte, the Princess Palatine, absolutely correct. Liselotte was always one of my favorite people from this period of French history, and the rapprochement between her and her gay husband, and her gay husband’s lover, was incredibly unique in history. I was worried they’d gloss over it, but no, there it was, front and center. Why no one has done a biography of Monsieur, I’ll never know; I suppose everyone is so dazzled by The Sun King that no one has ever thought that, you know, a view of the French court and Louis XIV through the eyes of his gay brother could be interesting.

Believe me, if I spoke French I’d be all over it.

Then again, were I able to speak French, there are so many things I would have written by now.

Sigh. I often regret my monolinguism.

This weekend I managed to read a lot of short stories, giving me a lot of material for The Short Story Project over the next few days, but the weekend was pretty much a bust for writing. I only managed to eke out slightly over a thousand words on one short story and perhaps one hundred on another, which was, as one would imagine, enormously frustrating for me. I am still choosing to see that as a win; getting closer to being finished and all, but still enormously disappointing. The thousand words or so was basically wheel-spinning, because I don’t know how to end the story yet, and I know I need to go back to the very beginning and start revising it so I can figure that out. It’s so weird; I do this with novels all the time but with short stories, I resist doing it until I’ve got a draft version finished. So incredibly stupid, I know, and yet…here we are.

Heavy sigh.

All right, enough of that nonsense. Here are two of the short stories I read over the weekend, both from Alive in Shape and Color, edited by Lawrence Block.

First up, we have Jeffery Deaver’s “A Significant Find.”

“A crisis of conscience. Pure and simple. What are we going to do?” He poured red wine into her glass. Both sipped.

They were sitting in mismatched armchairs, before an ancient fireplace of stacked stone in the deserted lounge. The inn, probably two hundred years old, was clearly not a tourist destination, at least not in this season, a chilly spring.

He tasted the wine again and turned his gaze from the label of the bottle to the woman’s intense blue eyes, which were cast down at the wormwood floor. Her face was as beautiful as when they’d met, though a little bit more worn, as ten years had passed, many of which had been spent outside under less-than-kind conditions; hats and SPF 30 could only give you so much protection from the sun.

If you’ve not read Jeffery Deaver, you simply must read the Lincoln Rhyme series. I am terribly behind on it, but tore through the available volumes over the course of a month or so when I first discovered him. He’s also a very nice man, and it’s lovely when someone nice enjoys exceptional success.

Anyway, this story is terrific. The couple we see in these paragraphs, whom are the main characters of the story, are an archaeologist team at a conference in France. They, while enormously successful with publications and so forth, have never made what is known in their field as a ‘significant find.’ There’s a very strong possibility that they are about to  make one; based on some information passed on to the husband in casual conversation in the bar; undiscovered cave paintings. It turns out the person passing the information on has his own information, collected from a local boy, wrong; the couple figure out what he had wrong, and are about to go look for the cave. The crisis of conscience is whether or not to share the discovery with the colleague who originally got the information. This is the kind of moral dilemma that characters in Tales from the Crypt episodes find themselves in and almost without fail made the wrong choice; so the story always ends up with their come-uppance. This was what I was expecting out of this story; but Deaver manages some exceptionally clever sleight-of-hand and thus the ending of the story comes out of nowhere and is satisfying in its own way; the pay-off is quite good.

I then moved on to “Charlie the Barber” by Joe R. Lansdale.

Charlie Richards, who thought of himself as a better-than-average barber, was lean and bright-eyed, with a thin smile, his hair showing gray at the temples. He loved to cut hair, and he loved that his daughter, Mildred–Millie to most–worked with him. They were the only father-and-daughter barber team he knew of, and he was proud of that. He was also glad she lived at him with him and her mother, Connie, at least for now.

Next year she was off to the big city, Dallas. Graduated high school a couple years back, hung around, cut hair, but now she was planning to attend some kind of beauty college where she could learn to cut women’s hair as well. Planned to learn cosmetology too. Claimed when she finished schooling she could either fix a woman up for a night out, or spruce up a dead woman for a mortuary production. Charlie had no doubt that would be true. Millie learned quickly and was a hard worker.

This story was inspired by one of those classic Norman Rockwell paintings, with it’s homey, almost propaganda-like charm about American simplicity and virtue. Being a story by Joe R. Lansdale, who is embraced by both the horror and crime writing communities–he won an Edgar for Best Novel, and numerous Stoker Awards–you just know this euphoric American idyll story of a small town barbership in the 1950’s is going to take a truly dark turn. Charlie was a POW during World War II and still suffers from a degree of PTSD; the supply closet in the back of the barn, with its tight, confined space and darkness, always takes him back to the horror of the camp and what he had to do to escape the butchering of the prisoners; he was one of the few survivors. And sure enough, the peaceful charming world of the barbershop is turned upside down just before closing time when something wicked that way came. The story is both horrifying and brilliant; the juxtaposition of the Rockwell Americana painting/world view and the automatic nostalgia the time period conjures, steeped in nostalgia for the 1950’s as a more innocent, charming time (which is completely false), against the horror that walks through the barbershop door and what they have to endure to survive it–the sort of thing that did happen, but without 24 hours news channels and the Internet most people never heard about these things–is stunning. Lansdale is a terrific, terrific writer, and this story is one of the best ones I’ve read thus far in this Short Story Project.

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