Is There Life Out There

I slept well last night, so well that I didn’t want to get up this morning–yet these wasn’t another option, so here I am, with my first cup of coffee with darkness pressing against the windows as the sun slowly begins to rise in the east. It’s not terribly cold this morning in the Lost Apartment, so I assume it can’t be that cold outside. Stranger things have happened, though. And this is, of course, the first week that is going to end with parades this weekend on the Uptown route; the preview or prelude, if you will, to the six days of utter madness to come.

Thinking about it makes me feel very tired. I wonder which parade the LSU football team will be riding in? The last time they won the championship it was Rex; I wonder if that will hold true this year as well? I doubt Joe Burrow will be riding, though. I think he’s already departed from Baton Rouge.

It took me a while to decide what to read next, after finishing Tracy Clark’s sublime Broken Places. I finally settled on a reread of Mary Higgins Clark’s Where Are the Children? I’d be meaning to reread it for quite some time–I originally read it in its first paperback release when I was a teenager; it was one of those “phenomenon books” of the 1970’s, as I mentioned the other day; everyone was talking about Where Are the Children? when it was released, and it wasn’t as easy for a book to go viral back then as it is now. My memories of it were relatively vague since it’s been forty years or so since I first read it; I simply remember who the real bad guy was, and that the woman had successfully disappeared after the first trial–which probably would never happen today,, of course; her face, and videos of her, would be plastered all over the 24 hour news networks and the tabloids, so her disappearance probably wouldn’t work today–but I was relatively certain that she was the only point-of-view character, which, as i discovered as I started the reread yesterday, wasn’t quite true. The villain’s point of view is there, as is Nancy’s new husband’s, and you know what else? It’s even better than I remembered it; the pacing is genius, and the way Clark writes is also genius. I’m glad I picked it up again; it wasn’t easy to put it down, frankly, and I am itching to get back to it.

We also watched The Pharmacist yesterday on Netflix. I’d seen some local chatter about it on social media, and I knew it was a true crime documentary set here in New Orleans (or close enough nearby). It’s exceptionally well done, and it’s primarily set in Chalmette, in St. Bernard Parish, which borders the lower 9th ward of New Orleans. (Chalmette is also where the Battle of New Orleans took place, and the historic park is there.) I remember the story of the pharmacist trying to get justice for his murdered son from back in the day, but I didn’t realize Dan Schneider’s story had gone beyond that, which it did; exposing a pill mill office in New Orleans East, which helped lead to the opioid crisis as well as the new heroin outbreak. I do remember having to test at a clinic in Chalmette or Arabi in St. Bernard Parish once a month for several  years, and I never really tested a lot of people out there for HIV/AIDS, but on the rare occasions when someone would want to get tested, they inevitably would talk to me about how bad the addiction problem in St. Bernard Parish was–I remember one man telling, sadly, that “nearly everyone in the parish is addicted to something” and “you see discarded needles everywhere–in every parking lot, along the side of the road, pretty much everywhere you look.” Watching The Pharmacist brought back a lot of those memories of Mondays, heading down St. Claude Avenue to where it becomes the St. Bernard highway, crossing the Industrial Canal into the lower 9th and so forth.

Remember how I said the other day I am hardly an expert on New Orleans or Louisiana? This is a case in point. I think somehow I have to figure out how to write about the Louisiana opioid crisis at some point…no one else seems to be doing so.

I also went to the gym yesterday afternoon, and it was wonderful. I don’t want a cookie, but I would like it stated for the record that I neither had to force myself to go, and that once I was there, I enjoyed myself. It’s kind of nice to work my muscles again, and they feel like they are adapting to regular exercise again–this morning they don’t feel either tight or tired, which is kind of cool. I’m glad I resisted the urge to pick up like I hadn’t worked out in years, remembering to start slowly and work my way back into the routine. Right now I am doing a full body workout three times a week; this week is two sets of 12 reps on everything; next will be three sets; and then the week after that raise the weights. If I can keep this going–and right now, it doesn’t seem like there’s any reason not to–by about May I’ll be ready to go into a more concentrated, more difficult work out routine, focusing on specific body parts each time rather than the entire body.

I had started watching the Anthony Minghella version of  The Talented Mr. Ripley the last time I went, and so yesterday watched for another thirty minutes or so; I am close to halfway through the rewatch. The film is vastly different from the book, of course–a lot of the book was internal–and the homoeroticism, and Tom’s sexuality, are a lot more apparent in this film version than it was in the book. The book was more coded, the film, made in a freer, more accepting time, isn’t as afraid to delve deeply into the matter of Tom’s sexuality. In this second half hour of the film, the character of Freddy shows up, played perfectly by Philip Seymour Hoffman (he, along with Cate Blanchett and Matt Damon, definitely give the strongest performances in the film), and it’s also remarkable how beautifully the movie was filmed; it’s hard to go wrong with shooting on location in Italy. Watching the fracturing relationship between Tom and Dickie also makes more sense in the film than in the book; again, Damon’s performance is remarkably nuanced and sympathetic; you can’t help but feel sorry for Tom, so dazzled by this glimpse into a world he never knew before, and as someone who has been the “poor friend tagalong who can’t afford to make his own way,” I understand completely how Tom must have felt. In fact, I couldn’t stop thinking about that, and when I got home I started work on a new short story–“Festival of the Redeemer,” set in Venice. I’ve always wanted to write a story set in Venice (I did Tuscany in “Don’t Look Down,” and will eventually do Florence as well, I am sure) and I’ll probably work on that story some more this week.

I also worked on the Secret Project yesterday, which is finally starting to take shape.

And now, it’s time for me to get ready to head into the office. Have a lovely Monday, Constant Reader, and I’ll catch you on the flip side.

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St. Elmo’s Fire (Man in Motion)

Lundi Gras, and the downward slope of the marathon. Huzzah! I have a lot to do today; all trying to get it finished in the window before the streets close for tonight’s parades, Proteus and Orpheus. I need to run to the grocery store, get the mail, and am also hoping to get to the gym as well; I’ve not been since last Sunday, but the combination of all the cardio involved with the walking to and from the office, as well as shortened hours because of the parades, has conspired to keep me from my workouts. I cannot go Wednesday morning, either, because the gym is closed until noon; by then I will be at work. So, if I don’t work out today I can’t get to the gym again until Thursday morning, which would be most inopportune. But I am confident I will get back into the swing of my workouts again; despite the Mardi Gras interruption–that always happened in the past, after all, and I was always able to get back to it.

Exhaustion has also precluded me from writing and/or editing over the last week or so; I have plans to get some writing done today as well as some laundry. I have to decide on a story to write for two anthologies, and I desperately need to rewrite/revise/edit another that is due by the end of the month. I am also behind on revisions of the WIP, and I need to get moving on the Scotty book as well. This will, of course, be a short work week; Wednesday thru Friday, so I am hopeful that I can get a lot accomplished in this time period. I should probably get dressed and head out for the errands; the later I wait, the more likely there won’t be a place to park when I get back.

I started reading Killers of the Flower Moon before bed, but it just didn’t grab me right away; I’ll go back to it, I am sure. Instead I started reading The Black Prince of Florence by Catherine Fletcher (Florence! Medicis! History!), and am loving it so far. I doubt that I’ll ever tire of either Italian history, or the Medici family.

I did manage to get back to reading on The Short Story Project as well this weekend, between parades and physical exhaustion. The first was the title story of Joe Hill’s collection, 20th Century Ghost:

The best time to see her is when the place is almost full.

There is the well-known story of the man who wanders in for a late show and finds the vast six-hundred-seat theater almost deserted. Halfway through the movie, he glances around and discovers her sitting next to him, in a chair that had moments before been empty. Her witness stares at her. She turns her head and stares back. She has a nosebleed. Her eyes are wide, stricken. My heart hurts, she whispers. I have to step out for a moment. Will you tell me what I miss? It is in this instant that the person looking at her realizes she is as insubstantial as the shifting blue ray of light cast by the projector. It is possible to see the next seat over through her body. As she rises from her chair, she fades away.

Then there is the story about the group of friends who go into the Rosebud together on a Thursday night. One of the bunch sits down next to a woman by herself, a woman in blue. When the movie doesn’t start right away, the person who sat down beside her decides to make conversation. What’s playing tomorrow? he asks her. The theater is dark tomorrow, she whispers. This is the last show. Shortly after the movie begins she vanishes. On the drive home, the man who spoke to her is killed in a car accident.

This is a great short story; a ghost story about a haunted movie theater. It moves very quickly, and I love how Hill sucks you in almost immediately. I am greatly enjoying reading Hill’s short stories; and am looking forward to getting back into this collection. It also wraps up perfectly. I’ll be honest; I tried reading two of Hill’s novels and simply couldn’t get into them–which is probably more on me than on him–but as I said, I am loving the short stories, and will undoubtedly go back to the novels; I often find something that didn’t grab me the first time will wind up being something I love when I try it again later.

Then I moved back to Lawrence Block’s Alive in Shape and Color, and the next story up was “Girl with a Fan” by Nicholas Christopher.

On the fifth of June, 1944, a young man stepped off the 9:13 train from Lyon, squinting into the morning light. Tall and slender, he had an asymmetrical face: the right eye higher than the left, the left cheek planed more than the right. He was wearing a brown suit, black shirt, yellow tie, and brown fedora. His suit was rumpled, his boots scuffed. He was carrying a leather briefcase with a brass lock. His pants cuffs were faintly speckled with yellow paint.

He cast a long shadow as he walked down the platform. Halfway to the station, two men in leather coats came up from behind and gripped his arms. One of them pressed a pistol in his side, the other grabbed his briefcase. They veered away from the station, guiding him roughly down an alley to a waiting car. A man in dark glasses was behind the wheel. He was bald, with an eagle tattooed at the base of his skull.

At first, this story seemed a bit off to me; it didn’t really fit with the rest of the stories I’ve read in Block’s ‘inspired by a painting’ anthologies. For one thing, it jumped around in time and place, going from Nazi-occupied France to the south seas back to France in the late nineteenth century again; but linking these three different narratives was Gauguin’s painting, “Girl with a Fan”: where the fan came from, when the work was actually painted, and what happened–was happening–with the painting under the Nazi pillaging of the occupied country. Once I grasped what Christopher was doing with his story, I began enjoying it; it’s not easy to juggle three different stories, locations, and time-lines in the space of one short story. Well done, Mr. Christopher, well done indeed!

I also read some others, and will probably continue reading some more today; but I shall save those for a future entry.

And now, back to the spice mines. Here’s a hunk to get you through your own Lundi Gras.

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Like a Virgin

Well, it’s a chilly, gray Friday morning in New Orleans, Constant Reader, and we’ve managed to survive yet another week Again, this is a short work day for me at the office, so I’ll be able to make groceries this afternoon and go to the gym this evening before curling up in my easy chair with Karen M. McManus’ y/a bestseller, One of Us is Lying. (I will also continue with the Short Story Project, never fear! I just haven’t decided where I want to go next–whether it’s a single author collection or an anthology I want to dip into; or maybe go back to the Laura Lippman and Sue Grafton collections; mystery or horror.) I’m all caught up on posting about short stories after today’s post, too, so I need to decide, and soon.

Last night I worked some more on the WIP; moving on to Chapter Two. This chapter didn’t flow as easily as the first, and I only got about 1800 words done on it (which made the writing day a bit of a failure) but I also tweaked Chapter One a bit and got another 200 words or so added to it; a two-thousand word day is a win, for me, even if the goal is always to do at least three thousand–particularly considering how just last month I would have considered a hundred words a triumph. So, thus far this year I’ve written four short stories, one and a half chapters of the WIP, and one chapter of the Scotty–and I even know what the second chapter is going to be–which is how Scotty books usually work; no plan, but the next chapter reveals itself as I write the current. I also have tossed out the entire plot as it was; new victim, new everything. But I am hopeful I can get this all finished by the end of February; Mardi Gras notwithstanding. I also solved the problem with another manuscript I’ve been sitting on for a long time, and I know how to make it work as well now, but it’ll have to wait until I am finished with these two projects and another.

It feels so good to have my creativity kicking into gear again.

I also watched Riverdale last night, which has replaced Teen Wolf as the gayest show on television. Oh, sure, like Teen Wolf there’s only one gay character on the show; but all of the guys are fricking gorgeous with amazing bodies that are shown off pretty regularly–you haven’t lived until you’ve seen KJ Apa in a low cut singlet without a shirt underneath–and there was even a locker room scene where Archie was talking to gay Kevin, while in the background between them was some amazing hunk wearing only a towel standing at the sink–yay for gratuitous male bodies!

So, as this weekend looms I hope to get a lot done. We shall see how that works, but…hope springs eternal.

Today’s first short story is Sarah Weinman’s “The Big Town”, from Alive in Shape and Color, edited by Lawrence Block:

You don’t expect to see a portrait of your mother hanging on the wall of your gangster boyfriend’s living room. especially when the portrait shows your mother without a stitch of clothing on but for a pair of green heels.

“Where did you get that painting?” I asked, my voice more querulous than I wished. It was my first time in his house. I hesitated about a return visit even before seeing the portrait, but now I knew. I would not be back.

He turned to face the portrait. I looked at his back, the white collared shirt barely covering dark matted hair. I’d run my fingers through that broad, fleshy forest the few afternoons we’d fucked in a Ritz-Carlton hotel suite. Again I remembered what I found attractive about him: power, status, money. And what I found ugly: body, face, manners.

The story is really quite good and a poignant story about love and loss at the same time. The main character is a rural Canadian girl who ran away to the big city to avoid a prearranged marriage, her only future being a farmwife and having a passel of kids; she’s kind of become a good time girl, doing whatever necessary in order to survive on the fringes of society. But once she sees the portrait of her mother, who died when she was young, she becomes obsessed with getting the portrait away from the vile gangster and learning its history; how it came to exist in the first place.

I’ve read a lot of Weinman’s non-fiction before, and of course, just finished reading her stellar anthology Troubled Daughters Twisted Wives, which was exceptional. Nonfiction writing, however, doesn’t necessarily translate into good fiction writing; but Weinman hits the ball out of the park with this one. That yearning, sense of drifting is captured perfectly, and her main character is the kind of woman I like to read about; transitioning from a woman to whom things happen into a woman who makes things happen. The sense of learning more about her mother, that drive to know and understand her biological mother better, is something that resonates with every reader: how well do we really know our parents? Particularly if one parent died really young? This is a great story, absolutely great.

 The second story I read was the last one in Alive in Shape and Color, Lawrence Block’s “Looking for David.”

Elaine said, “You never stop working, do you?”

I looked at her. We were in Florence, sitting at a little tile-topped table in the Piazza di San Marco, sipping cappuccino every bit as good as the stuff they served at the Peacock on Greenwich Avenue. It was a bright day but the air was cool and crisp, the city bathed in October light. Elaine was wearing khakis and a tailored safari jacket, and looked like a glamorous foreign correspondent, or perhaps a spy. I was wearing khakis too, and a polo shirt, and the blue blazer she called my Old Reliable.

We’d had five days in Venice, This was the second of five days in Florence, and then we’d have six days in Rome before Alitalia took us back home again.

I said, “Nice work if you can get it.”

I’ve not read any of the Matthew Scudder novels Mr. Block has been writing for decades; as I have said before, my education in my own genre is often sorely lacking in many regards. But this story was irresistible to me for several reasons–it’s set in Florence, for one, and of course it is inspired by Michelangelo’s David, which also has inspired me for a novel that I hope to someday write. The story begins as above, with Matthew recognizing someone in the piazza that he had arrested, and soon remembers the gruesome butchery of the case. The man comes over, introduces himself, and then invites them to his villa for lunch the following day. Elaine bows out of the lunch, and over the course of the meal the man explains, at last, why he committed the brutal crime Scudder remembers and never knew the motivation behind (he’d pled guilty, served his time, got out and retired to Italy; would that I could do the same!). It’s a macabre story of a stunted gay life, and how once he fell in actual love with another man he abandoned his old life without a care and took up a new one, that ended in tragedy. It’s actually quite good, and bravo to Mr. Block for taking on such a topic without dealing in tropes, or stereotypes; it was also lovely to read a gay villain, as it were.

And now back to the spice mines.

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