I’m not going to tell the story of my college writing professor who read the short story I turned in for his class and told me I would never be a published writer–as tempting as it is (oops, looks like I told it again, didn’t I?) but every time I sell a short story I do think of him and the smug look on his face as he tried to obliterate my life-long dream. I think of it every time the anthology or magazine or wherever I’ve sold the story to comes out, when the reviews begin (even the ones that don’t mention my story or didn’t like it) coming out, every time I Iook at the pdf file to proof, and so forth.
And I definitely think about him when I cash the check.
As I hurtle towards sixty (less than three months away) I have been remembering a lot about my life, reflecting and looking back, memories long buried coming to the forefront of my fevered little brain. I really had horrible professors in college, without fail–one after the other at that godforsaken college; it’s little wonder I experience bouts of imposter syndrome.
Let it go, Elsa, let it go.
Zane parks his wobbling shopping cart next to the island divided in half. The side he parked beside contains cantaloupes, separated by a partition from round, green-striped watermelons beneath a sign reading Red Seedless Personal Watermelons, $3.99 The cantaloupes are cheaper, per the sign casting shadow on the stacks of melons below. He glances around. There’s an older woman, rooting through the baking potatoes like a pig hunting truffles. A younger woman is inspecting the rubber-banded clusters of green onions. Two men in uniforms are building salads at the salad bar, scooping things into Styrofoam boxes. Three people are waiting for their orders at the deli meat counter, their backs to him.
No one is paying him the slightest bit of mind.
He picks up one of the cantaloupes and does what he’s seen others do. He sniffs it where the vine had been attached, holds it up to his ear and thumps it with his thumb. He doesn’t know how it should smell or sound if it’s ripe or not, but he’s too self-conscious to not go through the same motions everyone else does when selecting a melon. He’s terrified someone will notice him not thumping and laugh at him, mock him for his stupidity, point out he doesn’t belong in this big modern supermarket with its aisles and aisles of bounty. He’s always afraid someone, anyone, will notice he doesn’t know how to do a simple task every other shopper seems to know how to do instinctively, something so incredibly simple his failure will be like an enormous neon sign announcing to the other shoppers in their yoga pants or tennis skirts that he doesn’t belong here.
One of these things is not like the others.
Stop thinking like that, he scolds himself as he puts the cantaloupe back with the others. You belong here just as much as anyone. Who knows what secrets these other shoppers might be hiding?
He closes his eyes for a moment, hears his heart thumping rapidly in his ears. It’s too fast, but that isn’t anxiety or stress, it’s because he just taught back to back spin classes, it’s why his legs are tired and why he’s in the produce section of the Rouse’s Supermarket on Tchoupitoulas Street, listening to melons while wearing a black tank top drenched in sweat and tight bike shorts under looser-fitting cotton ones and shivering in the air-conditioned coldness.
I love dark fiction, and particularly love horror. I used to go back and forth between horror and crime; I couldn’t decide which I wanted to do more. The first books I wrote to completion (besides that silly, lengthy Peyton Place ripoff I wrote in my late teens and early twenties, from which I regularly pilfer characters and plots from)were horror, technically; Sara, Sorceress and Sleeping Angel–which eventually, with a lot of revision and updating, saw print; although Sleeping Angel in its final form was more of a mystery than anything else. I don’t write “jump-scare” horror, and eventually realized that I didn’t have the imagination to write horror; almost everything I tried–story, novel, whatever–inevitably was highly derivative of other books, authors, stories. Inspiration for crime stories were everywhere–the daily news, for example–and I also realized my bent was more along the lines of Gothic stories and/or psychological horror.
The inspiration for “Night Follows Night” came from one of my several-times-per-week visits to the grocery store; that mundane experience we all have, we all deal with; the necessary chore that can only be put off for so long. As a slightly obsessive-compulsive person, I always plan my trips to the grocery store for maximum efficiency; no wasted time, no wandering down aisles, no just looking around. I have a list every time I go grocery shopping, and the list is made completely predicated on where everything is located in the store–so I don’t have to waste any time. I go only to the aisles where the things I need are stocked; skipping the ones I don’t need anything from, and work my way from the right side of the store to the left before completing the circuit by checking out and heading back out through the same doors I entered, having parked near them. One afternoon I stopped at the Rouse’s on Tchoupitoulas, list in hand (always on a small legal pad) and pen in pocket, when I got a cart from the corral with a loud, wobbly squeaky wheel–again. I always get a cart with a wobbly, squeaky front wheel; it doesn’t matter where I shop, it happens every time. (Of course, I could always put it back and get another, but somehow that disturbs my sense of order.) As I pushed the cart into the store, the wheel wobbling and squeaking, and headed for the melons–a seedless watermelon was on my list, the very first thing–and I picked one up and thumped it…and as I placed it in my cart I wondered, what precise sound is the thump supposed to make? Am I just so lucky that I pick up a ripe one every single time? What does an unripe one sound like?
And as I worked my way through the list with my wobbling, squeaking cart that day, the story kept forming in my mind; someone doing the mundane task of making groceries (as we say here) in a brightly lit, sparsely crowded supermarket–the character taking shape in my mind, having a near breakdown and his tightly held grip on reality and sanity starting to slip–but why? What would trigger such a reaction, and who is this guy? He held my imagination, my mind idly wondering about him and coming up with reasons for this break in a public place–which, I figured, would also make it worse for him–and I started thinking about that sense of not belonging there; that he feels like he doesn’t belong still, in a normal everyday environment, and wondering why that was as I drove home, unloaded the car and putting the groceries away, and I sat down at my computer and started to write this story–which, through several title changes and various iterations, became, finally, “Night Follows Night.” It languished in my files for about a year until a friend–Felice Picano, to be exact–sent me the call for submissions for Unburied, and I thought to myself, “hmmm, that grocery store story might work for this” and I opened the file and polished it again before sending it in early last year. It was one of four stories I sent out in a day, and one of the two that were accepted within twenty-four hours, by editor Rebecca Rowland, and now the entire anthology is available.
Some of the reviews, and information about the other contributors and their stories as well as ordering information can be found here.