Fading Fast

When I started looking over the lyrics to the three Go-Go’s songs I was given to choose from as my inspiration for a story–as you well know, I settled on “This Town”–I was amazed, as I have said before in previous entries about these stories in this anthology, at how dark the lyrics actually were when removed from the context of the upbeat music and the cheerful singing voice of Belinda Carlisle.

Needless to say, the songs definitely loaned themselves to serving as inspiration from crime stories.

And Sarah M. Chen wrote perhaps one of the darkest stories I’ve read in a long time, inspired by “Fading Fast.”

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The guttural meow of a feral cat pierced the still night, making Sherry yelp. She stumbled on the gravel road and smacked into Justin, who crept silently in front of her.

“Jesus, what’s with you?” Justin whispered, spinning around. He held a finger up to his lips as if she needed to be reminded that they were supposed to be “stealth-like.” Jus- tin’s exact words because this was all his plan. He didn’t even want her here, but no way was she letting him do this without her.

“Sorry. Damn cat.” She hated cats. Mostly because that’s how they sounded late at night outside her window. Howling in that creepy, blood-curdling way.

His stern look softened into concern. “It’s not too late to back out, babe. Let me handle it.” His eyes traveled down to her bulging belly.

Sherry instinctively put her hand on her round tummy. She shook her head. “No, this is my thing.”

Their eyes locked in the darkness, illuminated by the full moon and the flickering streetlight behind them.

“It’s our thing.” Justin smiled and grabbed her hand. Gave it a squeeze. She squeezed back, and he motioned to the trailer about twenty feet ahead of them. “Ready?”

She nodded. Their footsteps crunched on the gravel as they closed in on the gray aluminum mobile home with the sagging bottom frame. The chilly night seemed to penetrate her bones, as if she weren’t wearing two sweatshirts and a windbreaker. Or maybe it was her nerves. She shivered.

Justin climbed the creaky steps and tried the front door. It was locked, as Sherry knew it would be. Justin pulled out a flathead screwdriver and went to work. Ernie didn’t bother with the deadbolt. Figured the few neighbors around knew better than to screw with him. Tonight, he was wrong.

The story opens with Justin and Sherry breaking into the trailer of Ernie; she is heavily pregnant, so immediately the mind runs to why would a pregnant woman be doing this? But as the story progresses, Chen deftly shows us precisely why a pregnant woman would take such a monumental risk, and why she is so driven. A powerful story about abuse, the damage that results from it, and how that damage can carry on to another generation unless someone breaks the cycle is handled quite expertly here; and the way the story ends is quite a punch in the mouth. Chen is quite gifted, and this is my first experience with reading her work…and it won’t be the last.

Well done!

Blades

Reading these stories, and revisiting the music, has drawn me into something I rarely do: reminisce and think about the past. I generally try not to think too much about the past; it’s the past and there’s nothing to be done about it, after all. Sometimes, though, when writing, I try to draw on my past and my own experience.

The 1980’s were a difficult decade for me, but one of the things I remember fondly about that decade was always the music. I’ve always had a soft spot for 1980’s music, and it was a weird, transitory time for it. MTV changed everything; exposing Americans and young people to new music and bands and artists they might not have ever heard, and the visual medium of the new “music television” channel also allowed us all to experience music visually, and there’s no question that interesting video presentation helped artists like Culture Club, Cyndi Lauper, Duran Duran, and many others to an even greater success than might have otherwise been possible for them.

The Go-Go’s videos were almost always very simplistic; probably “Vacation” was the most complicated video they ever made. Rewatching their videos recently kind of made me laugh–“Head over Heels”, for example, looks like it cost $20 to produce–and I’m not certain if this was because they didn’t care, or the record company thought they were big enough to not need the push from a terrific video.

The next story up in Murder-a-Go-Go’s is “Blades,” by Steve Weddle.

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He was on his fifth Tequila Sunrise when his head hit the table.

“Everything, guys. Everything.”

We’d talked Nick into coming for drinks because he hadn’t been out of his apartment since twenty-nine days back when he and Laura had called it off. We had to get him out. Even without the wedding, the three of us considered ourselves his groomsmen. Until death do us all part, it seemed. Though another few drinks might take care of that.

The Thursday night crowd at Wingin’ It was worried more about the Cowboys-Eagles game than about the four of us concussing ourselves on a table.

Raphael slid the emptied tumblers away from Nick’s head. “She didn’t take every- thing, man.” Raph was the jokester among us, the one we sent in to cause a scene if we needed it, the one thinking he was just one prank away from going viral. When we’d go to games, he was the one who would sneak us in a diaper bag full of White Russians in baby bottles “You’ve still got your health,” he told Nick, pulling a coaster from the side of Nick’s face. “And that nasty cold sore.”

Truth be told, Nick was a bit of a late bloomer. We were all in our late thirties, but he hadn’t even gotten through his first marriage, yet. And with Laura dumping him a month before the wedding, he was even further behind us.

“Look,” Sam said, “if it wasn’t meant to be, it’s best you know now. The two of you can move on, find new people. It’s good news to find out now.”

“We’re still registered,” he said.

Ralph, Sam, and I looked at each other, then back to Nick.

“Sure,” Sam said, “I’m sure she didn’t even think about it. Probably moved on. You should too, man.”

“At Target,” Nick continued, ignoring Sam. “I checked. Target still thinks the wedding is going to happen. On the nineteenth. That’s next weekend.” He’d raised his head, apparently just he could drop it, rattling on the table again. “Next weekend.”

Sam said he’d get the next round, then walked across the room to the bar.

This story is different from the preceding ones in that the crime committed during the course of this story isn’t a felony; and the crime itself, while the driving force behind the story, isn’t really the focus of the story. The story is about friendship, and the things guys do to help out their friends, whether it’s a smart thing or not, and the ending of the story might be a little dark–the story itself is dark, emotionally–but it also leaves the reader with a strong sense of satisfaction; justice, of a sort, has been done, and everyone feels better about things. It’s about male bonding and male friendship, and not done in a way that feels non-relatable to not-straight men.

Quite good, and I loved the change of pace.

And now back to the spice mines.

Heartbreaker

Adjusting to normality after the madness of Carnival is never an easy thing to do.

Fortunately, it always involves a short work week–three days–and before I know it the weekend will be here and Monday will be when things really get back to normal around here.

In other exciting news, my own Mardi Gras Mambo was included in a round-up of crime novels set during Carnival, along with noted writers whom I admire, such as Bill Loefhelm, James Sallis, James Lee Burke and Barbara Hambly, among others. (You can check out the entire list here.)

Isn’t that lovely? It’s always nice–and a bit of a surprise–when I find myself on lists like this, whether it’s “gay crime writers” or “books about New Orleans” or “New Orleans crime writers” or pretty much anything, really. I must confess, whenever I see a list where I could be included and am not, it always stings a little bit; I suppose that’s something I will never get used to…and I always wonder, is it because I’m gay? Do queer writers not count? Of course when it’s a list of queer writers it can be a bit maddening, but if you let things like that derail you or hurt your feelings…you’re in the wrong business.

You have to not let the exclusions bother you and celebrate the inclusions…which isn’t easy.

Yesterday was a day of utter discombobulation as I tried (and failed, really) to adapt back to my work schedule, which means I did go to work but the rest of my life floundered around the edges. I didn’t even get around to answering emails yesterday, which was a priority, or paying the bills. But this morning I paid the bills (which is always a crushing blow on pay day) and have another hour or so before I have to get ready for work–so the goal is to tear through my emails and get as many answered as possible.

Fingers crossed, at any rate.

I also started rereading Bury Me in Shadows last night; and yes, the first chapter is, as I feared, a total mess–but it’s fixable, and I am going to continue rereading those first ten chapters this week and work on fixing them before moving on to the rest of the book. I just need to get past this weird feeling leftover from Carnival, where I don’t feel like I am actually a part of my life but am kind of drifting alongside it, observing but not participating in it, if that makes any weird kind of sense.

But I am hoping today will sort that out. The kitchen is a mess–I did the dishes when I got home last night, but there still is a mess everywhere in here and the floor needs to be done–and get some more things sorted and organized. I slept really well last night and didn’t want to get out of bed this morning; tomorrow is a get up at the crack of dawn morning but it’s also only half-a-day, so I am going to try to get all my errands done tomorrow afternoon on the way home from work so as to be able to, once again, not leave the house this weekend.

I find that I really do enjoy those weekends when I don’t leave the house.

I also managed to read another short story last night, from Norah Lofts’ Hauntings: Is There Anybody There?, titled “The Bird Bath”:

Opening her door for the first time to Mr. Mitson, Mrs. Pryor felt a sense of recoil. He looked like a tramp of the kind not often seen nowadays. He had a very red face, sharp red-rimmed little eyes, and a week’s growth of beard. He wore a dirty old army greatcoat, made for a bigger man, and a hat which had long ago lost its original color and shape. He smelled strongly of beer.

Nearby, however, actually in her tiny drive, stood a reassuring sight, a white pony, plump and shiny and with the placid look of a well-treated animal. Attached to the pony was a small cart, bearing in white paint the words–J. Mitson, Dealer. This morning J. Mitson was dealing in firewood.

Over the next few days, as the widowed Mrs. Pryor settles into her new home–having returned to England after years abroad with her husband–in East Anglia, Mr. Mitson keeps coming back and selling her things…with the final thing he sells her being a strange bird bath; a plinth with a wide open space at the top.

And that’s when things get interesting.

Another enjoyable, Gothic style, softly whispering ghost story. I love that Lofts isn’t into outright horror or jump scares, but like The Turn of the Screw and The Haunting of Hill House, her whispered stories make the hair stand on end and the skin crawl.

SO glad I got this book!

And now back to the spice mines.

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Deja Vu

Ash Wednesday!

Carnival is over for yet another year, and today it’s back to work and farewell to the flesh and all of that. We separated and sorted the beads last night, clearing off the coffee table, and now have several bags I’m going to drop off at the library donation spot this Saturday. Today is about heading back into reality; vacation is over along with Carnival, and today is about getting back on that horse. Heavy sigh. Obviously, my preference would be to stay home.

Yesterday was a day off for me; no social media, no emails, nothing. I spent the morning, after writing yesterday’s blog, reading Lori Roy’s superb Gone Too Long, which I am still digesting. There’s a review to come–the book isn’t released until June or July–but I want to spend some more time digesting the book and thinking about it before I write anything about it. It’s fantastic, as all Lori’s books are, but this one–and I hesitate to say this about books as a general rule–is important in some ways. I do think it’s probably going to be one of the year’s best; again, that usually is the case with any Lori Roy novel.

I also started reading Alafair Burke’s The Better Sister, which is off to a rousing good start. This is part of my homework for the panel I am moderating for the Tennessee Williams Festival this year, and what a curse to have to read some fantastic books this month, you know?

I also scribbled notes in my journal for the WIP and a future Scotty, along with some notes on short stories and so forth. This most recent rejection of a short story has made me realize the stories have to dig deeper, and that’s what I am going to do with the next versions of the stories–I need to figure out who the characters are in my stories and build the stories outward from there. Usually, when I write a story, it begins as a fragment of some sort–an overheard conversation, a sentence defining who a character is–and then I build from there.  I think what I need to do going forward is branch out and write the story from its original kernel, and then break it down into its separate parts.

It’s always a learning process, isn’t it?

I also read another story from Norah Lofts’ Hauntings: Is There Anybody There? 

The story is called “Pesticide”:

“And what about Jennie?” It was an old problem and the question made a kind of chorus through my life. My sister Angela was ten when I was born; my brother Bill, twelve, Margery almost fifteen. My mother had actually resumed work and I can imagine that my arrival caused her considerable inconvenience. Inconvenient–though far from unloved–I had remained; too young to share pastimes, interests, holidays; “a drag” as Angela had once said when Mother urged her to take me on a picnic.

Now, in June, as I was recovering–rather slowly–from having my tonsils removed, both my parents, archaeologists, were invited to join a “dig” in Turkey; Angela was perfecting her Italian in Perugia; Bill was doing a stint of good work with the Labrador Mission and Margery’s exact whereabouts were unknown. The last communication was from Libya, where she had a job as secretary-interpreter to a Dutchman who had a firm in Tripoli. It was a postcard of some splendid Roman ruin and it said, tersely, “Shall not be here long. will write.” No letter had arrived; nobody worried. As a family we were happy-go-lucky as well as cosmopolitan. But even my parents jibbed at the idea of leaving me alone in the house.

Several ideas were discussed and discarded for this reason or that; and then Mother had an inspiration. “I wonder if Effie could have her.”

Effie, it turns out, was the live-in housekeeper/nanny/cook/babysitter who left the family before Jennie was born; she married and moved away. So Jennie now is sent to stay with Effie and her new husband–who is a monster of the worst sort, making Effie completely miserable and Jennie–a rather precocious ten year old–decides to take matters into her own hands.

Not really a ghost story, but it’s definitely Gothic and very chilling.

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Drivin’ My Life Away

We left the Orpheus parade last night when it started raining and the wind picked up. It was already cold out there, but that weather shift was going to take it from merely unpleasant to intolerable pretty fast, so we skedaddled back to the Lost Apartment and called it a night.

But Orpheus is a beautiful parade, and the floats simply breathtaking.

And there’s nothing like Carnival to make me remember why I love this city so much. Carnival is pretty much unavoidable , no matter how hard you try, and there’s no point in resisting it because it isn’t going away. Even those who hate Carnival (which I don’t understand, unless they are also the people who kick puppies and so forth) have to ride the wave until it’s over. Today is the last day of my Carnival related vacation, and it’s been absolutely lovely. Did I get everything done that I wanted to get done? Of course not. I never do. But I did do some thinking, and thinking time is often in short supply. I’m looking forward to getting back to work on the WIP–I may go back and revise the first ten chapters to weave in the threads that are missing before writing the second half of the book–and with any luck, I can have a decent draft of it finished by the end of March.

Fingers crossed.

It’s very cold this morning for a Mardi Gras Day, and I kind of am glad Paul and I don’t do Fat Tuesday anymore. Not that it wouldn’t be fun, but all the costume planning and so forth, and I doubt seriously I could drink all day anymore and still make it to work on Ash Wednesday and be functional. Sigh, the pleasures of getting old. But I always feel like my time is borrowed, and the life I have is a gift I never thought I would see. So there’s that, you know?

I do have some cooking to do today; I need to make bacon for lunch sandwiches and I am going to make the chili today–thank goodness it’s cold, right? I am also going to go ahead and make chicken salad for Paul’s lunches this week.

I am trying to decide what I want to write next, if I do another Scotty. There’s an amorphous idea boiling in the back of my head that’s been back there for quite some time–Hollywood South Hustle–which would combine two stories I’ve been pondering for a while (I am leaning toward this one as the next Scotty because the other two–Bywater Bohemia Bougie and Redneck Riviera Rhumba–don’t have even an amorphous story dancing in my head other than the titles. I think Redneck Riviera will have to have something to do with Frank’s wrestling career and the other has to do with gentrification, but that’s all I’ve got. Hollywood South on the other hand has two different plots I want to write–one about a film industry scam that actually happened here in New Orleans, and the other about the victim of a vicious assault, twenty years later. It’s just about trying to figure out, really, how those two plots roll into each other and can run parallel to each other in order to make a cohesive story. Plus there’s another plot element that needs to be wrapped up, carried over from the current, and I think this plot can accommodate that story pretty well. This is kind of the Scotty book I originally intended to write as the fourth book in the series, but Katrina pretty much buried that, at least for a while. (I’ve already spun part of that original plot into Murder in the Rue Ursulines; but since it was a Chanse book it changed a lot; enough so that using the original idea as a Scotty would absolutely work.)

But…it’s nice to have another idea for Scotty lingering in my head, on the back-burner. Maybe I’ll even get to it later this year.

Stranger things have happened.

I also want to work on Monsters of New Orleans. I’ve not done any short story work in a while, and I kind of miss it. I had another story turned down by Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, but that’s only whetted my appetite to try to get something else published in there. There’s a long story, novella-length, called “Never Kiss a Stranger” that I’d also like to get back to work on, but on the other hand, I’m wondering if the story might make for a better novel than long-form story. I suppose I should finish a draft before making a decision, one way or the other.

And on that note, it’s back to the spice mines for me. I was thinking about working on some stuff today, since I’m not leaving the house, but I think I’ll just read instead.

Happy Mardi Gras, everyone.

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Misunderstanding

Well, Iris is over for another year and as always, the ladies of Iris were most generous to Paul and I. The coffee table is now buried in beads and throws, and there’s a whole day of parades today, plus the magnificence that is Orpheus tomorrow night. We skipped Tucks and Endymion last night–we never have really gone to watch Endymion; we used to walk up St. Charles to go out dancing on that night, and always caught tons of beads from Endymion as we walked–and our attendance today is entirely dependent on the weather. The day parades have been moved up an hour already because of potentially inclement weather; but thus far Bacchus is scheduled to role tonight at its regularly scheduled time.

Paul went out to celebrate a friend’s birthday last night, leaving me home to my own devices for the evening, and so I pretty much spent the evening watching nonsense on television and reading Lori Roy’s Gone Too Long, which is so beautifully written I have to put it down every once in a while to digest it. I am hoping to finish reading it today before and between parade.  I am glad I have tomorrow off, so I can get all the odds-and-ends of my book finished before Orpheus rides, and on Fat Tuesday I am going to probably just relax and read most of the day. I am very behind, not only on the Short Story Project but on the Diversity Project, and I also have my TWFest homework to do as well–I have three books to read for that. But once the Festival is over and I have the first draft of the WIP finished (around April 1st, methinks), I can dive back into both projects. Huzzah!

And since I am taking today off from writing, I can spend the morning before the parades get here curled up in my easy chair with Lori’s book, which is an absolutely lovely way to spend a morning…and perhaps during the brief break between Thoth and Bacchus I can get it finished. It’s a very  well written book, and the story itself, intertwining present day grief in a family with a history of Klan leadership, is stunning in its scope and what it is trying to do, and I am here for it. It’s also interesting that it fits into one of my goals for the year–which is to read more diverse books as I try to get a better handle on this country’s horrific history with race and how that currently impacts and effects our current society–which was, as I started reading it, completely unintentional…so technically, it counts in the Diversity Project because it is about racial disparities and tackles the question of race head-on by doing something incredibly daring for this day and age–a look at the Klan from inside the family of one of its leaders.

Reminiscent of William Bradford Huie’s The Klansman, which I reread earlier this year.

And now, I am going to retire to my easy chair with Lori Roy’s book and my iPad, with the electronic copy of Murder-a-Go-Go’s.

Happy Sunday, every one!

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It’s Everything But Party Time

Since adding Spotify to my life this week, I’ve been having a great time listening to albums I love, and of course the Go-Go’s are on that list. I’d forgotten how much I love having music on while I do things around the Lost Apartment–whether it’s cleaning or editing or writing; music always makes things better, quite frankly.

It certainly makes the time go by a lot faster.

Next up in Murder-a-Go-Go’s is Lisa Alber’s “It’s Everything But Party Time”:

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It’s my humble opinion that nothing says “boondoggle” like a bunch of oddballs running around a hotel dressed in fursuits. Wolves, raccoons, polar bears, and kittens sitting around the Paradise Arms Hotel lounge munching on appetizers and scratching each oth- er’s backs below a banner announcing “Furtopia—Welcome to Party Time!” didn’t bode well for the investigation.

My partner Mac skidded to a halt. “Sully? What the blazing fuck is this? You don’t warn me?”

“Nope. Hotel fully booked for a furry conference.”

The previous morning, paramedics had carted away a guy from room 306. Apparent heart attack. Only, the M.E. cut him open, cried “homicide,” and now here we stood, a day late to the investigation, surrounded by animal wannabes.

“So that lazy turd Weaver screwed up the initial investigation,” Mac said.

“Yep, settled for face value—natural causes. Didn’t lock down the scene properly. I’d probably have done the same thing.”

Mac punched me in the arm, too hard. “Not with me around.”

MacKenzie MacDougal, also known as Double-Mac-and-Cheese, Two-Mac, and Mac Attack, sports an unfortunate name to go with a fortunate tendency to rock her retro pantsuits. Ever more the professional than I, she perused the lobby area with its antique Italian marble, plaster ornamentation, and wrought iron fixtures straight out of Hollywood’s Golden Era and jotted a few notes.

Lisa Alber is another new-to-me author, which is one of the great things about anthologies; the exposure to writers you’ve not read before. She’s published four novels, including the County Clare mystery series.

“It’s Everything But Party Time” is particularly clever in that it’s set at a furry convention hotel, where the only guest not attending the convention died–originally presumed to be from natural causes, but the autopsy turned up peculiarities. This is a fun police procedural, with an interesting homicide detective team in Los Angeles; what makes this more unusual is that the woman is the better detective, the male isn’t threatened by her expertise, and they work very well together. This story is witty and clever and fun, and I had a great time reading it!