Thinkin’ Back

Here’s an excerpt from Bourbon Street Blues, to celebrate its release at long last as an ebook. You can order it here for only 2.99!

 

Chapter One

KNIGHT OF WANDS

A light complexioned young man with an adventurous spirit

 

It’s not the heat, it’s the stupidity.

A T-shirt bearing that slogan hangs in the window of every shop in the French Quarter that sells cheap souvenirs. The tourists, wiping the sweat off their foreheads with napkins while holding a forty-eight ounce plastic cup filled with an exotically flavored daiquiri in their other hand, nudge each other when they spy it. They exchange knowing smiles. The slow pace unique to New Orleans has irritated slightly ever since they got off their airplane. The long wait at baggage claim and the even longer wait in the taxi line. The check-in process at the hotel seemed endless. The line at Walgreens that just didn’t seem to move at all. The lackadaisical attitude everyone they have encountered since walking off their airplane seems to have toward efficiency has been all explained and summed up by a slogan on a cheap T-shirt. The heat is bearable, after all. Everything is air-conditioned, for one thing, and there’s all those forty-eight-ounce daiquiris with names like Cajun Storm, Swamp Water, and Mind Eraser for another. Yes, the heat can be borne. It’s the stupidity that is truly annoying.

What the tourists don’t know is, the stupidity referred to on the shirt is theirs.

New Orleans is a whore who makes her living by dressing herself up as the City That Care Forgot. We peddle cheap gimcracks to the tourists who checked their brains at the airport along with their suitcases but apparently forgot to claim the brains again upon landing at Armstrong International. We sell them refrigerator magnets with a drunk with X’s for eyes holding on to a Bourbon Street lamppost for support. We sell them beads they proudly wear even though Mardi Gras has been over for months. We sell them porcelain masks of white-faced harlequins made in Taiwan. We sell them forty-eight-ounce daiquiris that are flammable, or drinks in clear green plastic cups that are shaped like a hand grenade. We smile and avert our eyes as another vomits into the gutter. We plaster a smile on our faces as they drive five miles an hour through the city looking at the architecture even though we have to be somewhere in three minutes and they’ve backed up traffic for blocks. Tourism is our biggest source of revenue, after all, and if they can’t hold their liquor, oh well.

We have sold our collective soul on the altar of tourism.

In the summer, the French Quarter reeks of sour beer, vomit, and piss. At seven ever morning, the hoses come out and the vomit and spilt liquor and piss is washed down off the sidewalks. By eight, Bourbon Street stinks of pine cleaner, a heavy, oily scent that cloys and hangs in the air. It hit me full force when I slipped out of the front door of the Bourbon Orleans hotel at eight-thirty in the morning. The bellman on duty winked at me. I shrugged and grinned back. I wasn’t the first non-guest to slip out of the Bourbon Orleans that morning, and I wouldn’t be the last that weekend.

It was Southern Decadence, after all. Urban legend holds that Southern Decadence began in the 1980’s as a bar-crawl-type party a group of gay guys had for a friend who was moving away. They had so much fun, they did it again the next year. Each year it grew and grew until it became a national event, drawing gay men from as far away as Sweden and Australia. As opposed to other circuit events, for years there was no big dance party. It was just a big block party held in what we locals called the Fruit Loop, a five-bar, four-block stretch that runs from Rawhide to Good Friends to Oz and the Pub to Café Lafitte’s in Exile. All the bars have balconies except for Rawhide, and of course you can always take your drink with you.

The gay boys had started arriving yesterday afternoon, with the big crush coming in today, Friday. Labor Day weekend. The end of summer, when the locals can begin to breathe a little easier. The mind-numbing heat will break in the next few weeks, and what passes for our fall season will begin. Sunny days with no humidity and the mercury hovering in the seventies and low eighties. In New Orleans, we turn off the air-conditioning when the temperatures drop into the low eighties and open the windows.

I headed for the corner of Orleans and Bourbon. My stomach was growling. The Clover Grill was just a few blocks up Bourbon, and one of their breakfasts was sounding damned good to my slightly swollen head. There’s nothing like scrambled eggs and greasy full-fat bacon to make you lose your hangover. The food at the Clover Grill is one of the best hangover cures in town. I shifted my gym bag to my other shoulder.

The bars at the corner of St. Ann and Bourbon still had patrons. It was probably too early for new arrivals from out of town, so these were the holdouts from the night before, who still hadn’t grasped the fact that the bars don’t close. Tourists always have trouble pacing themselves in New Orleans. Bars that have no last call is an alien concept to most. The bars had been packed with tourists who had come in early for the weekend, the liquor had flowed freely, and there were very likely a lot of drugs to be had. Today the bars would be packed again, almost impossible to navigate through. I waved at Abel, the morning bartender at the Pub.

I was dancing at the Pub this weekend for extra cash. One of the porn stars, Rock Hard, who was supposed to dance this weekend, had overdosed on crystal meth on Wednesday. Condition stable—but no condition to dance. Randy Westfall, the manager, had called me on Thursday afternoon to fill in. It was very good timing. I was behind on some bills. It probably wasn’t very good karma to be happy that Rock Hard had overdosed, but I reasoned that it was probably a good thing. Perhaps the overdose would wake him up to the fact he had a substance-abuse problem, and he would now get some help for it. The summer’s heat is always a bitch on my personal training business, but this one had been particularly bad. It had been hotter than usual, which is a staggering thought. Everyone who could afford a trainer had left town. Those who didn’t leave didn’t want to sweat any more than they already were. Can’t say that I blame them—except when the second notices from my utilities start arriving.

The Clover Grill was crowded. I swore under my breath. Goddamned tourists. A wave of nausea swam over me. I shouldn’t have let what’s-his-name talk me into those tequila shots. What was his name? Bill? Bob? Brett? He was from Houston and tall, with a shaved torso and a nice, round, hard ass. He’d flirted with me early in the evening, wanted to know what time I was off, and had come back. You’d think at twenty-nine I would know better than to do tequila shots at two-thirty in the morning.  Dumb, dumb, dumb. Well, not that there’s a good time to do tequila shots.

I headed down Dumaine Street to the Devil’s Weed. The Devil’s Weed is a tobacco shop specializing in fine cigars, pipe tobacco, and imported cigarettes. They also serve coffee, muffins, and bagels. Not quite the greasy scrambled eggs and bacon my hangover was demanding, but it would have to do. I walked in.

“Scotty!” Emily, the cure twenty-two-year old lesbian who worked the morning shift, grinned at me. She wore her hair shorn close to her scalp and Coke-bottle glasses that magnified her big brown eyes. She always wore a tank top with no bra restraining her big full breasts, and a loose-fitting cotton skirt over sandals. She was from Minneapolis and had come down for Mardi Gras. New Orleans got to her and she stayed. New Orleans has that effect on people. You come for a weekend and get caught in her spell and can’t leave. It just gets in your blood. I’ve lived here all of my life and have never wanted to live anywhere else. When I was on the stripper circuit, every weekend a different town, I never found another place I wanted to live, and I had looked. I always came back with a healthy appreciation for my home city. If a city isn’t open twenty-four-seven, I don’t want any part of it. Here you can drink at any time of the day without feeling any guilt. You can eat whenever you want to, because there’s always someplace open. You can keep whatever hours you want. You don’t have to be a part of that whole nine-to-five rat race unless you want to be. I don’t. I hate waking up to an alarm.

My parents, who owned the Devil’s Weed, had practically adopted Emily. She was so likable and cute, you couldn’t help wanting to take care of her. She was a genuinely nice person, without a mean bone in her body. She has that good energy.

“Coffee and a bagel,” I sat down on a stool. She had a cigar burning in an ashtray.

“Liked the day-glo G-string.” She grinned as she put my coffee down.

I grinned back at her. “I made close to four hundred last night.”

“All right!” We high-fived. “Your mom and dad are still asleep.”

“Of course.” Mom and Dad were unrepentant stoners. They were hippies and counterculturalists, who’d never sold out, despite their successful shop. My first name isn’t Scott—it’s Milton. Pretty awful, right? Coupled with my last name, which is Bradley, and you can imagine the horror my childhood was like before my older brother started calling me Scotty. Of course, his name is Storm, and my sister’s name is Rain. When Mom was pregnant with me, both sets of grandparents had apparently sat Mom and Dad down and insisted I not be named after a force of nature. I can almost see the stoner glint in my mother’s eyes when she agreed. Milton was Mom’s father’s name. She always claimed she was simply honoring her parents by naming me that. That was her cover story, and she has stuck to it my whole life. I think both she and Dad regretted it later. They’re actually pretty cool parents. When I came out to them when I was sixteen, they wanted to throw me a coming-out party. They are both pretty active in P-FLAG. A huge rainbow flag hangs out in front of the store year-round. It’s kind of hard to be pissed at them for naming me after a board game company when they’re so cool. I’m sure it sounded like a good idea after a couple of joints.

“Since you’re up so early, I’m assuming you’re just now on your way home?” Emily raised her eyebrows and winked.

I winked back. “I never kiss and tell.” Well, I really do, but Emily was more like a little sister to me since she’d started at the shop. I would never give my sister Rain the details of my activities. Besides, Emily was also still a virgin. She was saving herself for the right woman, bless her heart. See what I mean about sweet? How could I corrupt her with my sordid tales?

I smeared cream cheese on my bagel and leaned over the counter to kiss her cheek. “You gonna be out tonight?”

“Yeah.” She giggled. “See ya on the bar.” She did a little dance for me. “I wanna pick up some of your moves.”

Laughing, I walked back out into the street and headed home, chewing on my bagel and sipping my coffee. I was tired. The bagel was helping the hangover. Thank God.

My apartment was on Decatur Street in the last block before Esplanade. The coffee was hot and strong. Carrying the cup was making me sweat. I could smell my armpits and it wasn’t pretty. All I wanted to do was get home, turn the air down to about sixty degrees, wash off the sweat and smell of sex, and sleep for a little while.

My building has a little mom-and-pop grocery store on the first floor. It opens pretty early. I waved to Mrs. Duchesnay, who always worked the morning shift. She and her husband had started the shop years ago, when they were both pretty young. All six of their kids had worked there at one time or another. Her husband had been a mean old man. He was always yelling and threatening kids about shoplifting. He’d accused me of stealing a pack of gum once that I had come in with, and called my mother. I don’t think he was expecting the furious harpy who stormed in and backed him up against the soda cooler and called him a fascist. He was always nice to me after that. The Quarter kids called him Mr. Douchebag. He’d disappeared about ten years ago. Quarter lore and legend believed Mrs. Duchesnay had killed him and gotten rid of the body. He’d been a bastard, so if she had, I always figured, more power to her. Those who believed the story didn’t hold it against her. He’d been a pretty miserable person.

I unlocked the gate. There were three floors above the shop, all apartments. My landladies lived on the second floor. Velma Simpson and Millie Breen had been together for about thirty years. Velma was watering the plants in the courtyard when I got back to the staircase.

“Morning, Scotty.” She nodded at me. She was nearly sixty, with steel-gray hair and wire-rimmed glasses. She was wearing a pair of tired old jean cutoff shorts and a white, sweat-stained tank top with no bra. She played tennis three times a week and jogged on the levee every day. There wasn’t an ounce of fat on her anywhere. She’d been a high school gym teacher and girls’ athletics coach until she’d taken early retirement a few years ago. Millie and Velma had baby-sat us when we were kids, whenever Mom and Dad had one on a private vacation or been arrested at one of their many protests. “How’d you do?”

I opened my bag and pulled out a wad of ones, fives and tens. “About four hundred.”

She put the hose down. “Give me three hundred.”

I counted out the money and handed it to her. She tucked it into her pocket. My rent was only four-fifty a month, which was a steal for the place. She and Millie could have gotten fifteen hundred for it easily. Luckily, Millie had been my mother’s best friend since grade school. She was also a lawyer, so they didn’t really need my rent money. I was pretty damned lucky. Anyone else would have thrown my late-rent-paying ass out on the street years earlier.

She pulled a joint out of her cleavage. “Need some help to sleep?” She and Millie always got the best pot.

“You gonna join me?”

She laughed. “Stupid boy.”

I sparked the joint and took a long hit. She took it from me, took two, and handed it back to me. She waved me into a lawn chair and sat down herself. She inhaled, long and deep, then pinched it out and set it on a table. “What you gonna do today?”

“I’m gonna sleep.” I felt quite pleasantly stoned.

She leaned back. “Leave your gear. I’m gonna do a load of laundry later this morning. I’ll bring it up.”

“Cool.” I yawned.

“Does your getting home at this hour mean you got lucky?” Velma and Millie always wanted details on my sex life. I didn’t mind telling them, although I did think from time to time that was a little weird that two lesbians in their late fifties were so interested. It was a small price to pay, though, for them being so cool about the rent.

I smiled at her. “Guy from Houston.”

“You like them cowboys.”

“He had the nicest ass.” I winked at her and then launched into the gory details.

I’d been dancing for about an hour when he came up to the bar. I’d seen him in a corner, sipping on a Bud Light long-neck. He was good-looking, all right. Short black hair, blue eyes, dark tan. He had a red tank top tucked into his belt, and a torso shaved smooth. Big pecs, melon-sized, abs you could do your laundry on, and a pair of tight jean shorts rolled up at the knee. He grinned up at me. Nice, even white teeth. He stroked my calf. I knelt down with him in between my legs.

“You’re pretty.” He said, pulling a five out of his pocket.

“You ain’t bad either.” I put my hand on his chest. Solid as a rock. Skin smooth as a baby’s butt. Definitely shaved.

“What time you getting off?”

“Two in the morning.”

“I’ll be here.” And he was. Simple as that. A 2:10 we were down tequila shots. Half an hour later we were in his room at the Bourbon Orleans with our tongues down each other’s throats. He did have the nicest, tightest, hardest ass I’ve come across in a long time.

I’d left his five on the nightstand when I left.

Velma sighed. “Ah, to be young again.”

I yawned. “Can I go to bed now, Aunt Velma?”

She handed me the roach. “Take this for later.”

I kissed her cheek. “Thanks, doll.”

I was so tired by the time I got upstairs that I decided not to shower but just go straight to bed. I collapsed on my bed and closed my eyes.

I was asleep in a matter of seconds

BourbonStreetBlues

What About Your Friends

This four day weekend was precisely what the doctor ordered.

I feel relaxed and rested already, which is quite lovely, if I do say so myself. Although yesterday…I didn’t realize precisely how worn out and tired I was. I wound up doing some chores around the house in the morning, only to find myself very tired and unable to face my computer screen. So, instead, I retired to my easy chair and finished reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem, which I enjoyed, and then dove back into Empire of Sin. I also dozed off once or twice in my easy chair, with Scooter curled up in our lap; Paul and I always joke that’s his primary super-power: putting people to sleep. If he comes and cuddles and falls asleep on you, you will also eventually doze off. It’s very interesting and strange at the same time. Go figure.

We are also watching a rather well-done suspense series on Netflix called Bodyguard, which stars Richard Madden, aka Robb Stark (which probably means there won’t be another season of Medici Masters of Florence, damn it), and it’s quite interesting; well written, with twists and turns and some very interesting points and all kinds of Machiavellian machinations. We are enjoying it, which is great.

One of the many things I put on my goals for 2018 was a renewed focus on self-care; I’ve kind of let that fall by the wayside as the year has progressed (although it’s one of the reasons I am not beating myself up for not getting anything done yesterday; I was extremely tired). I have returned to the gym in fits-and-starts–getting a new groove going for a few weeks only to fall off the wagon and then having to come up with the motivation to start over again. Despite these enormous disappointments with working out, 2018 is one of the better years I’ve had lately, fitness wise; at the beginning of the year I weighed in at a terrifying 225 pounds; last week I weighed myself and discovered, to my great delight, that not only had I finally broken through the plateau of 215 (I never seemed to be able to get my weight lower than that, no matter how hard I tried), but I blew it up; last week I only weighed 208. I haven’t weighed that since 2011 or 2012; one of the two, and it’s just continued to climb since then. It would be great and amazing and awesome to roll into 2019 with 200 firmly in my sights; I doubt I will ever be able to get back down to 180. but if I can get down to 200…who knows what I can accomplish? Needless to say, this is very exciting for me.

I had some hopes and thoughts about possibly going to the gym today later; I may still do so. But I have some errands to run, some bills to pay, and some writing to do; the house is also kind of a slovenly mess. I also have the next two days off; big games for both LSU and the Saints on tap for the weekend–it’s easy going to be a great weekend for us here in Louisiana, or one of the worst football weekends ever. You never know, really.

We also get an extra hour of sleep this weekend, which is amazingly lovely.

All right, ’tis back to the spice mines with me. These bills aren’t going to pay themselves, nor are the groceries going to do themselves, either.

Have a lovely Friday, one and all.

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Set Adrift on Memory Bliss

Ideas, swirling around in my fevered brain.

LSU handily defeated Ole Miss last night in Tiger Stadium, 45-16, and it could have been much, much worse; twice the Tigers fumbled on potential scoring drives inside the Ole Miss ten yard line; they also missed a long field goal. One of those fumbles turned into touchdown scoring drive for Ole Miss….so the final score could have been 62-9. But it wasn’t, and whether Ole Miss is a terrible team or not, one thing was for sure: I had a feeling this was the game when our quarterback was going to step up and show us what he could do, and he fucking did. The tough part of the schedule–Florida, Georgia, Mississippi State, and Alabama–is now looming large; but I think we will still wind up doing far better than pre-season predictions had us doing, and look out for the Tigers next year.

I spent most of yesterday relaxing and cleaning while college football games played on the television; I should have spent some time reading Circe (will make up for that error today), and brainstorming ideas for future works. I keep getting short story ideas, which is precisely not what I need right now, and ideas for new books to write, which I also don’t need right now. But this is all part and parcel of kicking my creativity into gear again with this Scotty revision; I am glad I decided to write it off contract as well as letting it sit for a while rather than the way I’ve been doing things, which is write write write edit edit edit revise revise revise miss deadline finish okay. I’m glad I had the time to let the book sit and simmer before getting back to work on it again; I am of course terribly behind, but I am confident that by the time Halloween rolls around this version will be finished, and then it just will need a firm copy edit to get it ready for publication and getting turned in.

And then i can focus on writing Bury Me in Satin. I also want to get back to work on the WIP; I think a y/a novel about rape culture in a small Midwestern town with an enormously successful high school football team is still timely, even if I had the idea originally many years ago after the Steubenville case. I have an idea for another book, along the same lines, swirling around in my head, about sexual abuse of minors as well…but that one’s going to be a while in the future. I also want to write my noir, Muscles.

There is literally so little time. I wish I was a) more motivated to work and b) had more time to work. But that situation isn’t going to change any time soon, so I need to get over it and make better use of the time I have. I don’t regret taking yesterday as a day to myself, to relax and do mindless things and watch football and clean and let ideas form in my head. My biggest fear, of course, is that I will never have the time to write everything that I want to write, and that is a very real fear for me.

It would help enormously if I stopped getting new ideas, of course.

But that ain’t going to happen.

And now, speaking of better utilizing my time, it’s time to get back to the spice mines.

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Jump Around

St. Petersburg, Bouchercon, the second full day of my stay here. My first panel is in two hours; the Sex Panel, titled a “nooner.” I have a Keurig in my room, and part of yesterday’s adventures included a trip to Target in Tampa (it’s a really long story) so I was able to get the kind of Keurig coffee pods I like as well as some of my creamer, and so I am having a great time in my room this morning. I have trouble falling asleep in hotel rooms, and this morning I fell asleep finally around three-ish, but since I didn’t have to be up early I slept late and then lounged in bed swilling coffee and continuing to read The Gates of Evangeline, which is wonderful.

Yesterday was my first full day here, and I had a marvelous time running into friends and laughing at many points until my sides ached and tears flowed from my eyes. The Coat of Many Colors event was remarkably well-attended for something at the ungodly hour of nine a.m., and the anthology signing was a delight. It was so lovely meeting some contributors for the first time, and seeing others again. I am very proud of Florida Happens, and I certainly hope all of you will get a copy and read the truly fine stories in it.

This afternoon (and really, today) is going to be insane. I have three panels and I am running for a seat on the Bouchercon board, after which I am going to some publishers parties so I am going to be on the go-go-go all day.

There will be a full report with pictures when I get home.

And now back to the spice mines.

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Sweet Freedom

Ah, Monday, which this week is my short day. I didn’t (of course) get as much done this weekend as I would have liked; but the truth of the matter is I really need a day to run errands and do chores–which exhausts me–and then another day to just chill out and relax to get ready for the next week. But I am not beating myself up over not getting things done as planned any more; a to-do list is merely a list of things that have to be done at some point, without deadlines and/or pressure. (Well, actual deadlines do have to be followed, but you know what I mean.) I did spend the weekend getting caught up on things I watch (Animal Kingdom) and some movies I’ve always meant to watch (The Faculty, which was amazingly and gloriously ridiculous) and an absolutely brilliant documentary about Psycho (78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene) and how it changed everything and influenced everything that came after it. It also called to mind how Anthony Perkins deserved the Best Actor Oscar that year and wasn’t even nominated–one of the biggest crimes in Oscar history.

I also did some reading; I read some short stories, which was fun, and I also read more of  Lou Berney’s November Road, which I am trying to read slowly, so as to savor every word and every moment. It really is brilliant; I have to say this is a top notch year in the world of crime fiction, with terrific novels being released left and right–this year has also seen Laura Lippman’s Sunburn and Alison Gaylin’s If I Die Tonight, with Lori Roy’s exceptional The Disappearing and Megan Abbott’s Give Me Your Hand being released this week, and so many amazing others I haven’t gotten to yet. My reading isn’t as public or as frequent this year as I would like, simply because I am judging an award yet again so am trying to focus on reading for that–hence the Short Story Project–and I worry that the great books are going to continue to stack up in my TBR pile, and thus defeat me in the process of ever catching up.

I really need to stop agreeing to judge prizes.

One of the stories I read yesterday was “Almost Missed It By A Hair” by Lisa Respers France, from Baltimore Noir, edited by Laura Lippman:

Had it not been his body in the huge box of fake hair, I like to think that Miles Henry would have been amused.

At least, the man I once knew would have seen the humor in it: a male stylist who made his fame as one of the top hair weavers in Baltimore discovered in a burial mound of fake hair at the Hair Dynasty, the East Coast;s biggest hair-styling convention of the year. It had all the elements that guaranteed a front page in the Sunpapers, maybe even a blurb in the “Truly Odd News” sections of the nationals. Television reports swarmed the scene, desperate for a sound bite from anyone even remotely connected to Miles. Yes, it all would have been sweet nirvana to Miles, publicity hound that he was. If he had lived to see it.

I knew him pretty well. I knew him when he was Henry Miles, the only half-black half-Asian guy in Howard Park, our West Baltimore neighborhood. His exotic looks ensured that he never wanted for female attention, although they also made him a target for the wannabe thugs who didn’t much cotton to a biracial pretty boy spouting hiphop lyrics. He was a few years older than I was, so our paths crossed only rarely. Besides, he was the neighborhood hottie and I was a shy chubby teenager with acne. The different in our social statures, as well as the difference in our ages, limited us to the socially acceptable dance of unequals. Meaning, I stared at him and he didn’t know I was alive. It was only when we were grown and found ourselves cosmetology competitors that we began to talk to each other.

This is a great story, and yet again further proof of how important the voices of diverse writers are. A murder that takes place at a convention for African-American hair and nail technicians? And frankly, I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a short story as much as I enjoyed this one. I know nothing –or at least, very little– about African-American hair, although I know it’s a very fraught issue. But from the wonderful opening of the discovery of a dead man’s body in a box of fake hair all the way through the finish, the authorial voice is strong, and what makes it even stronger is how she deftly explains, in a non-info-dumpish way, about weaves and wigs and styles and hair sculpting and everything that goes into what women of color deal with when it comes to hair.

Brilliant, and brava.

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All I Need is A Miracle

Friday, and is it ever miserably hot in the city today. Of course, it’s July, so it’s to be expected, but nevertheless it is such an awful bitch slap whenever you go outside. I keep forgetting to put extra socks in my backpack, which is completely and totally necessary. Tomorrow I have an insane amount of errands to run, as well as trying to squeeze in a gym visit, but then I’ll spend the rest of the weekend cooped up inside the apartment, cleaning and writing and trying to get organized–which is the endless battle, of course. I did thoroughly clean the kitchen the other night–I had some extra time and I was seriously dreading getting to the weekend with a week’s worth of mess piled up in there. So, I am a little bit ahead, but not much.

But any bit ahead is a good thing.

I’ve also fallen behind on my writing this week; no big surprise there. Being tired all day Tuesday didn’t get my week off to a particularly good start, and it’s kind of never recovered from there. I do have a short story that I need to get finished this weekend, so that is going to be my primary focus, and then I am going to get back to work on revising Scotty and fixing the WIP. In other news, water is wet.

I also have to revise a column I wrote, which I will try to get done after work tonight.

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True Colors

I wrote this entry two years ago, in the wake of the Pulse shootings.

06/16/16

The phone ringing woke me up that morning.

I sometimes wonder if that is when my aversion to the telephone really began; I’ve always blame my dislike of telephones on jobs that involved a headset and taking phone calls. But I can remember, before that Sunday morning, always answering the phone; I never screened calls. I always checked the voice mail the moment I got home and called people back right away. Now, the ringing of the telephone, any phone, grates on my nerves and tears at my subconscious. So maybe that was it; I cannot say for sure because my memory is foggy and I’ve learned, far too many times, that my memory has lied to me.

But the phone was ringing as I woke up, and as I started to sit up in bed I seemed to recall hearing it ringing earlier, in my sleep; aware of it but too asleep to get out of bed. But this time it woke me, and as I considered ignoring it and going back to sleep, I noticed on the alarm clock that it was nine in the morning…

…and Paul wasn’t home.

As I put on my glasses and slipped my shoes on and ran over to the phone, I remember the number on the caller ID was one I didn’t recognize; UNKNOWN CALLER with no number. I picked it up and said “Hello?”

“Is this Greg?” asked a very small, quivering female voice.

“Yes,” I replied.

“I’m sorry to have to tell you this but Paul is on his way to the emergency room at Charity Hospital,” she went on.

I sat down in the desk chair and listened to her tell me the story, hiccuping and crying and trying to keep her voice steady. I listened, not entirely sure this was really happening to me, hoping that I was asleep and this was a bad dream, as she told me how she and her roommate, both waitresses, had gotten off work and decided to stop by Verti Mart and get something to eat on their way home from work. They were on bicycles, and they were both college students, I think she said at Tulane. She told me how they were standing at the counter, deciding on their order, when they saw a lone guy walking by himself on the sidewalk across the street. As they watched, a white van pulled up to the corner, five guys jumped out and attacked the guy, punching and kicking him and screaming at him even after he went down. Her friend shouted at the store clerk to call the police and the two girls, college students, ran outside screaming. The guys jumped back in the van and took off….with the girls getting on their bicycles and chasing after them, trying to get their license plate number, to no avail. When they finally realized they weren’t going to get close enough to seem the plate number, they went back and stayed with him until the police and the ambulance came.

“He just kept saying you have to call Greg, please call Greg,” she said, finally starting to sob. “I’m so so sorry, I don’t know if he’s okay. I just know they took him to Charity Hospital, and he told me the number to call, he made me promise I’d call.”

I said thank you, thank you very much, and didn’t think to get her name or her phone number or any of her information, which I regret to this day.

I hung up the phone, and knew I had to get to the hospital.

I know at some point as I brushed my teeth and put on clothes, I was aware that I was going into shock. It was the first time in my life I’d ever heard my heartbeat in my ears, and I had no peripheral vision, and I couldn’t really hear anything. It was a very very strange feeling; I don’t remember every feeling that way before, or experiencing anything like it (I may have, but as I said earlier, my memory lies to me). I was shaking, and I knew I couldn’t drive.

So I called my best friend, who answered the phone the way he always did whenever I called him, cheerfully, “Hey whore!”

“Um, I need a favor. Paul’s at the emergency room and I don’t think I can drive. Can you come pick me up and take me?”

“I’ll be right there.” He hung up.

Charity Hospital was enormous. It’s still there, even though it’s not longer open. It became, of course, notorious after Hurricane Katrina, but before then, it was one of the top trauma centers and training hospitals for emergency trauma in the country. I vaguely remember sitting there in the emergency room waiting area, on those hard wooden benches that were so like church pews, while people were being brought in and rushed past, as other people sat there around us, worried, crying, some screaming every once in a while in pain while they waited to be taken in to see a doctor. It was surreal, and again it felt like something I wasn’t actually experiencing but was happening to someone else. I felt like I was out of my own body, watching.

And then finally they called my name.

A nurse led me back into the triage area, I guess it was called, I don’t know. On television emergency rooms always seem to be big rooms with sheets or dividers up separating the areas, but at Charity they actually had rooms. As the nurse led me back, she told me they were about to take him into surgery, and the surgeons would explain everything to me before I was taken in to see him.

All this time I didn’t know what was going on, and had been hoping it was something minor; a broken arm, a concussion, ribs, something where I’d be able to take him home.

Surgery. They were taking him in to surgery.

“He’s been given pain medication so he’s also going to be kind of out of it,” she said gently, and I will never forget her squeezing my arm when she said it.

She led me to a door–it was big and wooden and there was one of those small windows set into it at about eye level, with crisscrossing mesh wires set in the glass, where two men in scrubs were waiting for me.

In a low voice one of them, who had a Japanese last name, explained to me that he had sustained a lot of cuts and bruises but nothing serious; they had examined him and there was no concussion or internal damage. “But his eye–” he hesitated for a moment. “His eye was damaged.”

“His eye?”

The nurse was holding my arm still and she gave it another squeeze.

“Think of the eye like a grape,” he said softly. “If you put a lot of pressure on one side of a grape, it will explode out the back side. That’s what has happened to his eye. We’re going to try to save it.”

I think my knees buckled a little bit at this point, both in horror and relief; relief that it wasn’t something life-threatening, horror that his eye may have been destroyed.

The doctor also took me by both arms and looked me in the face. “He wants to see you. But you need to be prepared. It looks really bad. The surgery will also take a couple of hours. Once we take him in, you should just go home and relax, take care of things. Waiting here won’t do you any good, and just come back in a couple of hours. We’re going to take very good care of him, but if we’re able to save his eye, the recovery is going to take a really long time…and the psychological trauma can take even longer. You’re going to have to be strong for him.”

I nodded, and the nurse led me inside. Paul was lying on a hospital bed and when he saw me he just kept saying, over and over again, in a broken voice, “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.”

My heart broke. His eye…even now I can’t describe what that looked like. He was covered in dried blood. I just kept saying it was okay, everything was going to be okay, and then it was time for them to take him into surgery.

I felt so helpless. It was the most horrible feeling in the world, when someone you love is suffering and in pain and there’s nothing you can do to make it better.

The nurse handed me a clear plastic ziploc bag with his clothes and shoes inside of them.

They were soaked in blood.

I had Mark take me home. I don’t really remember the drive back home, I don’t really remember anything. I know that I didn’t break down until I was safely inside my apartment, and I sat on the couch for a really long time holding the bag of bloody clothes before I remembered that, no matter how much I wanted to wallow in it, I had to be strong.

I had to call his mother.

I had to call his boss.

I had to let friends know what was happening.

I know I did all of those things, but I don’t remember that afternoon very much. I just know that I kept calling Charity Hospital to find out if he was out of surgery but every time I called, I went into a nightmarish phone tree that I couldn’t figure out how to navigate, and finally I called a cab and went back.

Charity Hospital was enormous, as I said before, but one of the things that was really strange was I wasn’t able to find a reception desk, anything, anywhere, where I could find someone, anyone, to tell me anything.

There were phones in some places where you ostensibly could call for information, but a recording answered and I was too upset, too numb, to be able to figure out their phone tree system inside the hospital anymore than I had been able to at home.

I wandered around Charity Hospital looking for anyone for what seemed like hours.

Finally, I just sat down on the floor near an elevator bank, buried my face in my arms, and started sobbing in frustration and grief and pain.

Then someone knelt beside me and asked, in a very kind voice, if I was okay.

It was a nurse, a young African-American man with braids, and I sobbed out that my partner had surgery and I didn’t know where he was and I didn’t know how to find him and I couldn’t find anyone to ask.

He got me up, took me to a lounge, bought me a bottle of Coke from the machine there, dried my eyes, and made some calls. “He’s still in surgery,” he finally said, sitting next to me again. “I can take you up to the waiting room for that surgery. I’m so sorry.”

And he did, and he talked to the nurses on the floor, who came and checked in with me every half hour, making sure I was okay, making sure the television in the waiting room was on something I didn’t mind watching, or asking me if there was something else I’d rather watch.

They were so unbelievably kind.

This was before everything changed, you know, when I’d heard horror stories about how gay couples weren’t allowed to see each other in hospitals and how badly we were treated.

This was Charity Hospital in a state so red it practically glowed; yes, it was New Orleans, but it was also a city where my partner had just been beaten badly for the crime of walking while gay.

And they couldn’t have been nicer to me.

Finally, at ten o’clock, a nurse came to tell me he was now in the recovery ward, and she took me to see him. His head was bandaged but they’d cleaned off all the blood. He had tubes hooked up to him and monitors, but he was breathing, he was asleep.

I leaned over and kissed his forehead.

The recovery ward nurse told me I could stay if I wanted to, but she added that I’d be better off going home and sleeping in my own bed. “He’s going to need you to be rested and strong for him,” she said, rubbing my arm, “and so you’re going to need to make sure you take care of yourself. Will you promise me that? That you’ll take care of yourself? Because he’s going to need you.”

I nodded. “I don’t want to lose him again.”

She gave me her card, and wrote her cell phone number on the back. “I will call you and let you know where we’ve moved him, once he’s ready to be moved out of here. But you keep this card, and if you have any questions or anything to worry about, you call me any time. I’m so sorry you couldn’t find him earlier.”

I sat with him about an hour, and then I went home in a cab.

It was the longest and definitely one of the worst, days of my life.

I have never told this story publicly before, and I do not tell it now to try to make the Orlando tragedy about me. But what happened last Sunday wounded me very deeply, and dredged up a lot of these memories. As I tried to avoid social media, the news, etc., as much as possible–but you never really can–because of the arguing, the nastiness, the absolute viciousness, the attempts to erase the sexuality of the victims, and so on…I started thinking about what I personally have been through.

Paul wasn’t saved by a ‘good guy with a gun,’ he was saved by two brave college students–girls--who saw something wrong happening and did something about it even though those five assholes could have turned violence on them.

Two girls whose names I never knew, but to whom I will always be grateful.

And I also realized that in not telling my story of that awful day, that I was also being complicit. Complicit in not letting people know what it’s like to be gay in America, even in a tolerant city like New Orleans: that we are always at risk, we are always looking over our shoulder, we never can feel truly safe.

Ever since that day I have always, always made sure I was aware of my surroundings, of who was where and doing what. I observe and I watch, no matter what else I am doing, when I am out in public. I do it in the grocery store; I do it in the CVS; I do it when I am walking in the Quarter.

Tonight I have to go do bar testing, and it’s Pride Weekend in New Orleans. I’m not afraid; I have never been afraid. Being aware that you’re a target doesn’t make you afraid, but it means you just have to always pay attention and never let your guard down.

I never wrote about that day because Paul was the victim, not I; because it was Paul’s story to tell rather than mine. But I also realized that it is also my story.

The recovery for both of us from that day took a long time to heal, both physically and mentally. Reading the news reports about Orlando, paying attention to what was going, what had happened, the grief, made me realize that it’s still there, buried deep inside my soul.

My life changed that day. I changed. I am aware of some of the ways I’ve changed, but at the same time I also know I’ve changed in ways that even I may not be aware of. I didn’t write this for sympathy. I didn’t write this to try to make the tragedy about me. My heart breaks for everyone in Orlando. Even now when I run across things on my feed, stories of the survivors, stories of the dead, I can start crying again–so I try to limit my time on social media.

Orlando made us all change, I think. I think for the first time many people realized, maybe just a little bit, of what we as LGBTQ Americans go through, experience, on a daily basis; what it is like for us to live in a society and a culture where some people want us to die and celebrate our deaths.

Maybe things can change now. As I said the other day, I always try to make sense of the senseless; hope that things happen for a reason.

I just hope that those who died so horribly last Sunday morning, those whose last hours of life went from happiness and celebration to horror and fear–I hope that their deaths will mean something to this country, that their awful deaths weren’t just another statistic.

They are all at peace now.

May they never be forgotten.

I am posting this picture of two of the victims, a loving couple who hoped to be married but whose families will now bury them together, in a happier time, so that I, too, will never forget.

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May none of you ever be forgotten.