As Constant Reader knows, Gregalicious loves short stories. He regrets deeply that they are much harder for him to write than novels (I’ve often joked that I find it much easier to write a novel than a short story; the word count limitations are hard for me as I always tend to write probably more than is needed to illustrate a particular point–take this sentence, for example), and I am sure part of this insecurity comes from my oft-told tale about my first writing professor, who earwormed his petty nastiness into my brain and soul. (But also this gives me an enormous sense of personal satisfaction in that I know I’ve published more fiction than he did during his time on this planet; to this date, I still cannot find a single fiction publication for the prick.)
And while I am a firm believer in the mentality that writers should always be paid–even if merely a token–for their work, I will often write short stories if requested, and don’t mind donating a story for a good cause. The two stories I had in Bouchercon anthologies weren’t paid, nor was my story for Murder-a-Go-Go’s; like I said, when I am asked to write a story I am genuinely so flattered that the editor thought enough of me and my work to ask. I like writing short stories, even if they are a struggle for me, and there aren’t many places where one can get them published these days.
I was enormously flattered to be asked by short story master Josh Pachter to write a story for his anthology of stories inspired by the music of Joni Mitchell. The irony, of course, is that while I am familiar with Ms. Mitchell and her work–and I like what I know of it–I am not as familiar with her canon as I am with women singer-songwriters like Stevie Nicks, Dolly Parton or Carole King; I also realized that the songs of hers that I could name off the top of my head–“Free Man in Paris”, “Help Me”, “Big Yellow Taxi”, etc.–were the same ones anyone could; I wanted something not quite as famous and perhaps a little more obscure, something to which a Joni Mitchell fan would say oh yes, of course you chose that song.
So, I did what I often do in these situations: I asked my friend Michael Thomas Ford (aka That Bitch Ford), and he immediately came back with “You should pick ‘The Silky Veils of Ardor.’ It’s about that hot guy all the high school girls fall in love with and breaks their hearts.”
That was definitely intriguing, so I looked up the lyrics and listened to the song several times as I listened to Joni’s sweet voice singing them…and I knew immediately what story I was going to tell.
The elevator doors opened. Cautiously, her heart thumping in her ears, she stepped out into the hotel lobby and took a quick look around. At the front desk, a young woman in uniform was checking in a couple. They didn’t look familiar. But it had been so long since she’d seen any of them…would she recognize anyone?
She didn’t notice she was holding her breath.
She walked across the lobby to the hotel bar entrance. A reader board just outside said WELCOME BACK BAYVIEW HIGH CLASS OF 1992!
The black background was faded, the white plastic letters yellowed with age.
The urge to head back to the elevators and punch at the UP button until the doors opened, get back to her room and repack her suitcases—everything she’d just carefully put away neatly in drawers and hung in the closet—was strong. She resisted, recognized the need as irrational, closed her eyes, clenched her hands until she felt her ragged bitten nails digging into her palms.
You can do this you can do this you can do this you can do this….
A dull murmur came from the hotel bar, laughter and talking, the rattle of ice against glass, the whir of a blender. From where she stood, she could see the bar was crowded, cocktail waitresses in too-short black skirts and white blouses with trays balanced on one hand maneuvering expertly around groups of people.
Maybe no one there was from the reunion. Maybe she was early. Maybe—
You can do this!
She’d always had social anxiety. Had never made friends easily, couldn’t make small talk, sometimes said the wrong thing, alienated people without even knowing what she’d done. Parties and dances had always been agony. Even with friends, people she felt relatively certain actually did like her, there was always the irrational fear she’d say the wrong thing, forget a birthday, commit some horrific social faux pas that would turn them against her, show them what a damaged, worthless person she actually was. She’d started seeing a therapist after college, years after she should have, but her parents thought therapy was all touchy-feely mumbo-jumbo for the weak and all you had to do was suck it up and forget about it, not worry, lock it all away in some dark corner of your mind and move on.
I have never attended a high school reunion, and frankly, have little to no desire to ever do so–with no offense intended to anyone I went to high school with. Our school was very small and remote, for one thing–my graduating class had only 48 students, and at that point, were the largest graduating class in our high school’s history. It’s not easy to get there–one would have to fly into either Kansas City or Wichita, rent a car, and drive for at least an hour just to get to the county seat, and of course, my high school was about nineteen miles (give or take) north of the county seat. I do think about going back from time to time, more to take a look around and see what’s different now as opposed to then; to refresh my memories a bit for writing about the region–which I’ve done somewhat already, but not nearly as much as I could. Using Google Earth has already shown me that my memory is faulty–I’ve fallen into Google Earth wormholes frequently–so while there is some idle curiosity about going back, there’s very little desire or motivation. It’s difficult, I think, for my classmates to understand that I really don’t have much desire to revisit that time of my life; it’s certainly not their fault but the four or five years I spent in Kansas also contain some of the darkest periods of my life.
I wrote a short story about a high school reunion under my Todd Gregory pseudonym; “Promises in Every Star,” which eventually became the title story of my Todd Gregory collection. I first had the idea for that story when I received the invitation to my ten year reunion, back in 1988; the title is a lyric from one of my favorite til Tuesday songs, “Coming Up Close,” from my favorite album of theirs, Welcome Home, which I can listen to over and over again, and have, many times; it’s definitely in my Top Five favorite albums of all time. I don’t remember where I originally published that story, but it was many, many years later, after I had the original idea and wrote the first draft (in long hand), and after that, I figured I was finished with high school reunion stories.
Until “The Silky Veils of Ardor.”
As I listened to the song, the more the story began to take shape in my head; a high school reunion, twenty-five years later; returning to the town where she went to high school for the first time since she graduated and moved away with her family. I had already written the opening, for another short story; as I revised and retooled that particular story, the character grew and changed and wasn’t the timid, nervous, medicated woman she originally was–but I loved that original opening, and decided to lift it from the initial drafts of that story onto this one. I found the original word document of the first draft, erased everything after the opening few paragraphs, and renamed the file THE SILKY VEILS OF ARDOR. The rest of the story flowed out of me after I finished rereading and tweaking the original opening to fit the new story, and I was off and running. I revised the story several times, and one of the things, one of the points, I was trying to make with the story is about how differently we see high school than our friends and classmates did–which is an idea I’d been toying with after an exchange on social media with some of my classmates after I’d posted something–a status update or a blog post, or something along those lines–about how miserable I’d been in high school; my friends were all astonished because how I remembered high school was very different from the way they remembered it, and me. I remembered feeling isolated and lonely, like an alien from another planet set down into their midst; a freak everyone kept at arm’s length. They, on the other hand, remembered me as being popular and well-liked by everyone.
And that, my friends, is where this story came from. I still think about those tricks our memories play on us; our inability to see what was right in front of us if we could just see clearly.
The book will be officially released on April 7th from Untreed Reads; you can preorder it at any vendor that sells ebooks. There’s a stellar line-up of writers, and some of the proceeds are going to charity.
And thanks again to Josh Pachter for inviting me.
Here’s a link to Joni singing the song–this is the video I listened to for inspiration.