I’m Livin’ in Shame

As Constant Reader is aware, I have a kind of love/hate relationship with short stories.

I love them as a form. I love reading them–there are few pleasures greater than a biting short story with a sting at the end (I’m looking at you, Karin Slaughter’s “An Unremarkable Heart”)–and I love writing them…but I also hate writing them. I hate that there are fewer and fewer paying markets for them. Every writing class I took when I was younger always emphasized the short story and its importance (although I know any number of novelists who can’t or won’t or don’t write them), so it’s always a bit sad for me to see markets drying up and going away. I’ve had some great highs in my writing career thus far, and some of them have been thanks to short stories.

The thing about short stories is there are two ways to write them: you either get the idea for one and start working on it, or you’re asked to contribute one (or come across a call for submissions). I am not so great at writing for a submission call; I am inevitably on deadline for a novel (when am I not?) and the time frame inevitably for the calls never works out for me. I’ve had some luck with selling to markets with submission calls, but often I end up submitting a story I don’t feel is 100% there yet because it’s the day of the deadline and I’ve run out of time…so I will send it in, hoping I’m wrong and the story actually IS finished.

I am rarely wrong.

So, I generally just write stories when I get the idea. Sometimes I can get the first draft finished before the well runs dry or I have to put it aside to move on to something else I have to write; sometimes I just scribble down the title and the concept behind the story.

“This Thing of Darkness” was originally written for one of the MWA anthologies; I believe it was for the Michael Koryta When a Stranger Comes to Town. I didn’t think the story was actually ready to be read by anyone outside of my apartment, but it was the deadline and I thought why the hell not, nothing ventured nothing gained, and it’s an anonymous read so the judges won’t judge me PERSONALLY if it sucks. It was rejected–as I’d figured it would be, which was fine; those are such a long shot getting in through the hundreds of slush submissions is truly an accomplishment, kudos to those who have!–and so I tinkered with it here and there, now and then, over the years since that first submission. I didn’t think it was appropriate for most crime markets–it’s about a gay man to whom something horrible happened when he was a teenager, and I kind of went into detail about what happened to him–so I wasn’t surprised when I sent it to one and it was deemed “inappropriate” for their readers. So, I sat on it and figured it would be included in This Town and Other Stories.

Then Frank W. Butterfield contacted me for a story for his anthology of Valentine’s crime stories, and I thought, “You know, “This Thing of Darkness” is set during Halloween…you can change it from Halloween to Valentine’s Day” and so I did–and Frank graciously took the story.

Climbing the steps alongside the fenced in wooden deck, he couldn’t help but smile. He’d always loved that the place was named Tacos and Beer. So simple and unpretentious, in a world growing more complicated every day. The patio deck was crowded, filled with what he guessed were hipsters, with bare arms covered in vibrant multi-colored tattoos, the young men with their greasy-looking hair pulled back into manbuns, the women’s streaked with bright, vibrant colors and cut in a variety of styles. They seemed to all wear clunky boots and old, long out of style clothing stained and worn and riddled with holes. The sun glittered on their numerous piercings. He guessed their employers didn’t care about the artwork on their skin, or the posts and hoops bedazzling their faces.

He knew he was hopelessly, tragically, unhip. He’d never been one of the cool kids, and long since lost the desire to be one.

Although he would have thought they’d be too cool to celebrate Valentine’s Day? But many of them were obviously couples. Flowers wrapped in tissue paper adorned tabletops: carnations in various shades of pink, white and red; bullet-headed roses with baby’s breath; and arrangements of lilies and snapdragons and blooms he couldn’t identify. Heart-shaped boxes of chocolates, still tightly wrapped in cellophane, sometimes caught the light of the dying sun while he glanced at them.

He sat down at a tall table-top for two inside, perching on a stool facing the door. The inside wasn’t nearly as crowded as the deck. It was the first sunny warm day in New Orleans in quite some time—Carnival had been cold and gray and damp and miserable– and what young person didn’t want to be outside basking in the sunshine while drinking their artisanal craft beers and munching their tacos, laughing, enjoying being young and in love? He watched through the window, imagining he could hear the youthful spirit in their voices.

Oh, to be young again.

Or to be in love, for that matter.

This is, even though it is set in one of my favorite (or used to be, anyway; I don’t know if it’s still there or not) places to eat in my neighborhood, Tacos and Beer on St. Charles Avenue, really not a New Orleans story; it’s one of my Kansas stories. Glenn, my main character, grew up in Kansas and now is a writer living in New Orleans. (Hmmm.) The premise of the story is that, years after he left Kansas never to return, he gets an email out of the blue from someone he went to high school with, someone he hasn’t seen since Graduation Night, David Zimmer. David was the first friend he made when he moved to rural Kansas and started up new as a junior at Kingston County High. David stayed his friend even as he moved on to hanging out with more popular kids and, having been the bullied gay kid at his old high school, Glenn gives in the allure of being a football player and being part of the “in” crowd, having friends and not being picked on, desperately afraid that the gay rumors and bullying will somehow catch up to him at Kingston County High. Sadly, it does…and then one night at an end of the school year party, Glenn gets deeply into trouble, and needs David’s help–David, the first friend, the one he left behind in his need to be a “cool kid,” is the only person to whom he can turn in his hour of need.

At Graduation, they both agreed it was best they never see or speak to each other again.

Until now, and David is coming to New Orleans and wants to meet.

The idea for this story originated in something that actually happened; I did hear from an old friend I went to high school with; whom I’d neither seen nor spoken to since we graduated from high school (he went away to school at MIT; I eventually left Kansas, never to return), and he was coming through New Orleans on his way to run a marathon or something in Mississippi, so we decided to have dinner together and catch up. We did indeed meet at Tacos and Beer–but the horrible thing that happened to Glenn in high school never happened to me at any rate, and I’d certainly not turned to him for help in a dire situation we’d kept secret for forty years. I did, as the character in the story did also, arrive early. In fact, while I was sitting there waiting for my friend, watching the people out on the deck, that the idea for the story came to me.

I think it went something like I should write a story about two high school friends meeting up for the first time in nearly forty years to but what would the story be about to ah, they covered up something when they were in high school, were never found out, and have avoided each other deliberately for all that time, so of course the email out of the blue has made my main character nervous–what could he want after all this time?

And the longer I waited, the more I delved into the story in my head (and yes, this is also a cautionary tale about knowing writers: literally everything is material for us, and we can find inspiration for a new story almost anywhere), the more I liked the idea behind it, and when I got home (I only drank iced tea so I could write the story down when I got home) I parked at the computer and started writing.

I am very happy with the story and how it wound up turning out; dark and twisted, yet all under the happy veneer of a busy restaurant on St. Charles Avenue.

And if you’re interested in a copy of Cupid Shot Me, order it here.

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