Jungle Love

Well, I finally got those story edits done yesterday, and it wasn’t that hard to do. I don’t know why I was resisting looking them over, reading the notes, and looking at the story; and frankly, the story is stronger for them. I now await whether or not there will be further notes–if I did a good enough job correcting things for the editor–and I feel as though a millstone has been lifted from around my neck. I honestly don’t understand myself sometimes. This wasn’t a big deal, and yet I avoided it for at least three weeks, not only letting it hang over my head like the sword of Damocles but it was always there, in the back of my mind as I worked on other things, nagging at me from the darkened recesses of my brain, worrying me the way I’d worry a loose tooth with my tongue.

And getting it done? Such an enormous relief.

And of course, once I conquered that beast, I went back to that pesky chapter and yep, sure enough, I was able to start whipping it into shape and what’s more, it was relatively easy. I guess I’d had so much trouble getting the damned thing done in the first place–and yes, for the record, it wasn’t the mess I thought it was–that I thought fixing it would be nearly as painful as writing it was. Nope, it wasn’t. Sigh. And now I know I can get back on track and on schedule. HUZZAH!

Seriously. This is why writers drink.

So I, for one, am really looking forward to this weekend and getting a lot of things done. Hurray!

I also read two more Ross MacDonald stories, from The Archer Files.

First was “The Angry Man”

I thought at first sheer terror was his trouble. He shut the door of my office behind him and stood against it, panting like a dog. He was a gaunt man in blue jeans, almost black with sweat and dirt. Short rust-colored hair grew like stubble on his hatless scalp. His face was still young, but it had been furrowed by pain and clawed by anger.

“They’re after me. I need help.” The words came from deep in his laboring chest. “You’re a detective, aren’t you?”

“A sort of one. Sit down and take a little time to get your breath. You shouldn’t have run up those stairs.”

Next was “Midnight Blue” :

It had rained in the canyon during the night. The world had the colored freshness of a butterfly just emerged from the chrysalis stage and trembling in the sun. Actual  butterflies danced in flight across free spaces of air or played a game of tag without any rules among the tree branches. At this height there were giant pines among the eucalyptus trees.

I parked my car where I usually parked it, in the shadow of the stone building just inside the gates of the old estate. Just inside the posts, that is–the gates had long since fallen from their rusted hinges. The owner of the country house had died in Europe, and the place had stood empty since the war. It was one reason I came here on the occasional Sunday when I wanted to get away from the Hollywood rat race. Nobody lived within two miles.

Until now, anyway. The window of the gatehouse overlooking the drive had broken the last time that I’d noticed it. Now it was patched up with a piece of cardboard. Through a hole punched in the center of the cardboard, bright emptiness watched me–human eye’s bright emptiness.

“Hello,” I said.

The stories are pretty good; I’m glad I took a break from reading the MacDonald stories because the style and voice were starting to grate on me. Don’t get me wrong; I think MacDonald–despite the occasional casual racism and misogyny–is one of crime’s best stylists, and I love Archer’s voice. But reading story after story consecutively was starting to grate a bit, particularly since some were clearly better than others. Both of these are gems; both of them wind up twisting and turning far away from their simple, casual beginnings.

I also have to say that reading the MacDonald stories, as well as Sue Grafton’s Kinsey and Me collection, along with Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan short stories in Hardly Knew Her have not only inspired me but kind of taught me how to write a private eye short story. We’ll see how my Chanse stories turn out, I suppose…but at least now I am willing to try writing them, whereas last year I never would have dared try.

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Everything She Wants

I am ill.

It’s been threatening since last Thursday morning, when I woke up with a nasty, periodic cough that hurt at the base of my throat; I hoped it was sinus-related since the weather went through one of its typical New Orleans bipolar moments and went from cold and damp to warm and humid overnight; but this morning I woke up with a croaking voice, a slight headache and a mild fever. I chose to stay home from the office today and nurse it, hoping to head off something even worse. I am going to be drinking hot tea with lemon and honey, and chicken noodle soup. I do not wish to be sick in any way, shape or form. I cannot be sicker. I have too much to do.

The odd thing is I felt good enough yesterday to go to the gym for the first time in weeks, and even felt fantastic the rest of the day. Oh, I still had the periodic cough that hurt, but my body felt terrific. I didn’t even wake up feeling sore this morning. But my throat hurts, and coughing feels like gargling acid. And then there’s the damned fever. Sigh.

Although now I wonder if the energy I used at the gym is what opened the door for the illness to take over? BASTARDS.

All right, I am going to go dose myself and try to feel better. Ugh, I hate being sick. And this is twice in less than three months.

So, here are today’s short story offerings.

First, we have “The Shoeshine Man Regrets” by Laura Lippman, from Hardly Knew Her.

“Bruno Magli?”

“Uh-uh. Bally.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“Some kids get flash cards of farm animals when they’re little. I think my mom showed me pictures of footwear cut from magazines. After all, she couldn’t have her only daughter bringing home someone who wore white patent loafers, even in the official season between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Speaking of which–there’s a full Towson.”

This is a Tess Monaghan story, which opens with Tess and her old friend Whitney bored while waiting for their car from the valet service, so they start playing a game: identifying the shoes of the other people waiting for their cars. A laundry truck has the parking lot blocked so everyone has to wait. The ‘full Towson’ is approached by an elderly man of color, who points out his shoes have a spot of mayonnaise on them and asks if he wants a shine. The ‘full Towson’ is a typical asswipe, an altercation eventually ensues, and the old man is arrested–and confesses to a forty-year-old murder….and this is when Tess gets involved. Very satistfying, and a most excellent denouement.

Next, I pulled out the MWA anthology Ice Cold: Tales of Intrigue from the Cold War, edited by Jeffrey Deaver and Raymond Benson, and read the first story, Deaver’s own “Comrade 35.”

To be summoned to the highest floor of GRU headquarters in Moscow made you immediately question your future.

Several fates might await.

One was that you had been identified as a counter-revolutionary or a lackey of the bourgeoisie imperialists. In which case your next address would likely be a gulag, which were still highly fashionable, even now, in the early 1960s, despite First Secretary and Premier Krushchev’s enthusiastic denunciation of Comrade Stalin.

Another possibility was that you had been identified as a double agent, a mole within the GRU–not proven to be one, mind you, simply suspected of being one. Your fate in that situation was far simpler and quicker than a transcontinental train ride: a bullet in the back of the head, a means of execution the GRU had originated as a preferred means of execution, though the rival KGB had co-opted and taken credit for the technique.

As I read along, the story seemed familiar, and yet at the same time I couldn’t remember much about it. When I finally reached the end, I realized I had read the story before, but it’s a good story and I enjoyed it very much. Deaver is of course a bestselling author; and I’ve read many of his Lincoln Rhymes novels–years behind on him, of course. I actually submitted a story to this anthology, and was rejected. I still haven’t placed that story anywhere, either–but I think I finally know how to fix what’s wrong with it.

And now, to my reclining chair and some soup.

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Heaven

So, I survived my voyage out to Metairie. I like the new eye doctor–Dr. Moses at Target–and I am trying out progressive contact lenses. I never really got the sense from my previous eye doctor of how they worked–basically, it sounded like witchcraft–but Dr, Moses very patiently explained how they work in a way which was incredibly easy for me to understand–and it wasn’t that hard. Basically, the pupil expands to see far away and contracts to see up close; so the progressive contact lenses are for distance viewing with a small spot in the center for reading; the pupil will contract and see through that small spot for reading, etc. Was that really that hard to explain? But they are…odd. I have a tester pair, for me to try out and get used to; and they are definitely going to take some getting used to. I can see fine for working on the computer and pretty much everything else, but reading things on say, the television–I can read it but it’s blurry. I’m assuming this is part of the adjustment process; or if it’s not, I need to have the prescription altered. I also tried reading with them in–a couple of books–and I couldn’t. I doubt that is part of the adjustment process. Heavy sigh. But I’ll have to go back in  have my eyes looked at again, I suppose, if these issues aren’t part of the “getting used to them” process.

I was very tired yesterday; I didn’t sleep as well as I should have on Friday night, so I really knocked myself out last night and feel very rested this morning, which is great. I think part of the sleep issue I’ve been having has to do with both not working out in a couple of weeks in addition to drinking more caffeine–I’d cut back dramatically on both coffee and Coke–and so today I am off to the gym and I am going to try to not drink as much caffeine. I need to drink more water anyway.

I didn’t get as much writing done yesterday as I had wanted to; I hadn’t originally planned to even try–errands and so forth generally don’t put me in a very good hey let me write place; and I was right. Plus the contacts made it seem weird, if that makes any sense? I’m sure it doesn’t. So I tried to get chores done–I laundered the bed linens, cleaned the kitchen, etc. I also got caught up on Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and Riverdale; when Paul finally got home last night we got caught up on How to Get Away With Murder. I also did some serious thinking about the things I am working on–a recently rejected short story, for example, that I’ve been having trouble figuring out how to fix for years and it finally hit me last night; the Scotty book and where it’s going; the WIP and where it’s going; a couple of other short stories I am working on (Christ, I am working on a lot of shit, aren’t I).

So, this morning, after sleeping in for a bit, I am going to get some filing done, do some writing in my journal (to work around some thought about what I am writing now) and then I am going to go to the gym, come home and get cleaned up, and then I am going to write/edit for a few hours before it’s time for the ice dancing tonight on the Olympics (I already miss Adam Rippon).

And of course, I read some more stories for the Short Story Project.

First up was “Black-eyed Susan” by Laura Lippman, from Hardly Knew Her:

The Melville family had Preakness coming and going, as Dontay’s Granny M liked to say. From their rowhouse south of Pimlico, the loose assemblage of three generations–sometimes as many as twenty people in the three-bedroom house, never fewer than eight–squeezed every coin they could from the third Saturday in May, and they were always looking for new ways. Revenue streams, as Dontay had learned to call them in Pimlico Middle’s stock-picking club. Last year, for example, the Melvilles tried a barbecue stand, selling racegoers hamburgers and hot dogs, but the city health people had shut them down before noon. So they were going to try bottle water this year, maybe some sodas, although sly-like, because they could bust you for not paying sales tax, too. They had considered salted nuts, but that was more of a Camden Yards thing. People going to the track didn’t seem to want nuts as much, not even pistachios. Candy melted no matter how cool the day, and it was hard to be competitive on chips unless you went off-brand, and Baltimore was an Utz city.

Parking was the big moneymaker, anyway.

Every fall, Paul and I try to attend as many LSU games as we can at Tiger Stadium. It’s so much, frankly, to be in the stadium and being in a crowd of like-minded LSU fans, yelling and screaming and jumping up and down. The first two years we went to games we parked in an African-American church’s parking lot–they were so nice, and would give us cans of soda as well as letting us park there–because it was very easy to get out of there with post-game traffic. The church sold its property, alas–no idea why, but then we needed another place to park. About a block or two closer to the stadium we found a place–Miss Fay’s. Miss Fay is an older woman of color who owns a vacant corner lot next to her house and can fit about twenty cars in there for twenty dollars each; not a bad haul for a Saturday. She’s very friendly and nice, as are the rest of her family, and so we’ve been parking there for about seven years now–and they also keep watch over the cars. The walk is a little less than a mile to the stadium from there, and even on the hottest days (that Auburn game in 2015, Jesus!) it kind of gets you in the mood for the game to walk there, and after the game–we always stay to the end–the walk back allows the traffic to thin out a bit so it’s not so bad. I’ve always wondered about Miss Fay and her family; as well as the other families renting out parking spaces in the yards we walk past on our way to the stadium.

That’s what this Lippman story is about; it’s from the point of view of a teenager whose family rents out spots in their yard for parking during the Preakness, and the myriad other ways they try to think of to make bank from the race-goers. The young man works as basically what we called at the airport a skycap; helping people lug their full coolers and so forth to the track. On this particular day he helps a really pretty woman who looks like a black-eyed Susan; and the next day he also works to  help clean up the mess at the track. Her coolers are still there, and therein lies a tale. This story is filled with social commentary and it’s done in an incredibly easy way; it’s about the reality of being lower income and scrambling to find ways to make money; and of course, it takes a turn that has nothing to do with the young man who was only peripherally involved. I was worried he might get pulled into the investigation, but I was very pleased with how Lippman handled the story, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.

I also read Lippman’s “Ropa Vieja”, from the same collection.

The best Cuban restaurant in Baltimore is in Greektown. It has not occurred to the city’s natives to ponder this, and if an out-of-towner dares to inquire, a shrug is the politest possible reply he or she can expect.

On the fourth day of August, one such native, Tess Monaghan, was a block away from this particular restaurant when she felt that first bead of sweat, the one she thought of as the scout, snaking a path between her breasts and past her sternum. Soon, others would follow, until her T-shirt was speckled with perspiration and the hair at her nape started to frizz. She wasn’t looking forward to this interview, but she was hoping it would last long enough for her Toyota’s air conditioner to get its charge back.

Lippman created the character of Tess Monaghan, an accidental private eye who works the mean streets of Baltimore, in her first novel, Baltimore Blues, and continued writing about her for years before branching out into her brilliant stand alones. The Tess novels are amongst my favorites in private eye fiction, and Lippman began winning awards and making short lists left and right from the very beginning. “Ropa Vieja” is a Tess story; and a good one. It’s been several years since the last Tess novel, Hush Hush, and despite that I slipped easily right back into the rhythm of her voice and her world without issue; it was remarkably easy, like putting on a comfortable old baseball glove or a pair of slippers. This is an interestingly twisted little tale, about a pitcher for the Orioles who got sick on the mound in a late season game; and it had to do with the traditional pre-meal dish of ropa vieja he’d eaten from the afore-mentioned restaurant. The owner hires Tess to somehow prove that it wasn’t the restaurant’s fault–and boy, does this story take some serious turns on its way to its ultimate denouement.

As I’ve mentioned before, Lippman is an extraordinary writer–she’s one of my favorites–and her effortlessly brilliant short stories always are surprising, clever, and smart. I am starting to get a better idea of just how one writes a private eye short story from reading hers; there may actually be a Chanse MacLeod short story brewing in my head–or at least, one featuring his partner that has to do with the recent shutdowns/raids of strip clubs in the Quarter. It would certainly be an interesting experiment to try.

And now, back to the spice mines.

Have a great Sunday, Constant Reader!

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Saving All My Love For You

Saturday morning. I have an eye appointment in Metairie this afternoon, but I definitely need new glasses. I also have to get groceries this morning (ugh), and I should probably figure out some time to go get the mail as well. Heavy sigh; the house is also a mess and this kitchen needs a-cleanin’. Paul’s going into the office today, so I’ll be alone; I am hoping, after I get home, to spend some time writing. I was very tired and didn’t feel good yesterday; my throat’s kind of sore this morning as well; I woke up a lot last night, but I did sleep. Tomorrow I am going back to the gym to get my workouts going again, so hopefully that will help in the sleep department. I’ve noticed that I’m not sleeping as well since Carnival started and I stopped having time for working out.

I can’t not sleep. I have too much to do and I can’t be tired. Yesterday was my short day at the office and after I got home, I didn’t feel well and was too tired to do anything besides sit in my easy chair and watch Adam Rippon videos on Youtube. (I told you I was stanning.) Then it was time to watch the Olympic figure skating, which was terrific. Very proud of our US skaters! Nathan Chen had six quads in his program, and made Olympic history, and young Vincent Zhou skated magnificently as well. All three of our skaters wound up in the Top Ten, which was terrific, and Nathan came close to medaling. If only he’d turned that second quad in his short program into a combination jump and gotten points for it, he would have. He had the highest score in the long program. Had they both skated clean short programs, they both would have medaled. So, there’s a lot of hope there for the future. Part of the fun of the Olympics is also seeing the future of the sport out on the ice as well–the silver medalist, Shoma Uno, is very young as well, and there was a young Russian who is very artistic. Worlds this year will be very fun to watch.

Oh, Adam. What would it have meant to fifteen year old me, deeply closeted and terrified someone might find out who I really was, to see you skate at the Innsbruck Olympics in 1976? Watching you this past week brought tears to my eyes every time; my heart was in my throat every time you went into a jump. You made me laugh in your interviews, you made me cry with your oh-so-beautiful skating. I can’t remember the last time I was so emotionally invested in seeing a skater do well? Michelle Kwan, whom I loved and still miss? Rudy Galindo in 1996? And how happy and proud to see all the love for you, to the point where even the trash tweeting shit about you could just make me smile and think he has a bronze medal, and you have your phone and bitterness. I feel SORRY for you that you can’t find joy in this, what a sad, bitter, pathetic life you must lead. Especially the gay Republicans, so desperate for the love and acceptance they’ll never get from their abusive relationship with a party that hates them. Adam is a star; will be a star, and he’ll always, always, have these Olympics, three gorgeous performances, and a bronze medal. No one can ever take that away from him with petty nastiness.

Watching Adam and his great joy in his sport and doing his best also made me realize something; it’s about doing something you love, and doing your best. I had already realized that I had lost my joy in writing sometime ago; I’m not sure when it went from being something I loved doing to an odious chore. But this year I’ve rediscovered how much I love it, how much I’ve missed it; how I love creating characters and telling stories and expressing myself on the page. I was already getting there on my own, but watching Adam, seeing him, took me to that final place. It’s not about medals, it’s not about awards, it’s not even about money; it’s about joy in doing something you love.

Thanks, Adam, for that–and for making me realize how I’ve been neglecting my eyebrows.

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I also read some more short stories.

To be fair, I had already read Daphne du Maurier’s “The Birds”; her Echoes from the Macabre: Selected Stories is one of my favorite single-author collections of all time. But it had been awhile since I’d read this story; I knew it was vastly different from the Hitchcock film based on it, so I read it again.

On December the third the wind changed overnight and it was winter. Until then the autumn had been mellow, soft. The leaves had lingered on the trees, golden red, and the hedgerows were still green. The earth was rich where the plough had turned it.

Nat Hocken, because of a wartime disability, had a pension and did not work full-time at the farm. He worked three days a week, and they gave him the lighter jobs: hedging, thatching, repairs to the farm buildings.

Although he was married, with children, his was a solitary disposition; he liked best to work alone. It pleased him when he was given a bank to build up, or a gate to mend at the far end of the peninsula, where the sea surrounded the farm land on either side. Then, at midday, he would pause and eat the pasty that his wife had baked for him, and sitting on the cliff’s edge would watch the birds. Autumn was the best for this, better than spring. In spring the birds flew inland, purposeful, intent; they knew where they were bound, the rhythm and ritual of their life brooked no delay. In autumn those who had not migrated overseas but remained to pass the winter were caught up in the same driving urge, but because migration was denied to them followed a pattern of their own. Great flocks of them came to the peninsula, restless, uneasy, spending themselves in motion; now wheeling, circling in the sky, now settling to feed on the rich, new-turned soil, but even when they fed it was as though they did so without hunger, without desire. Restlessness drove them to the skies again.

One of the best parts of the film is that there’s no explanation why the birds have turned on humans; they just have, and there’s no way of knowing if they’ll ever go back to normal. The end of the movie is kind of left hanging; when I saw it the first time when I was a kid I was deeply dissatisfied with how the film ended. But there wasn’t really any way to end the film, and du Maurier herself gave no clues to what was going to happen at the end of her story. The story ends much the same as the movie; no end to the menace in sight, and even more chilling–I don’t remember if this was in the movie–but the BBC had stopped broadcasting; the horrifying part of this story is the incredible sense of isolation the family feels–are they the only people left alive in the world? On that level, the story is even more disturbing than the film; in the movie there are other people all around in the town. The story is set out in the country…and du Maurier never lets the reader know. The way the horror builds is almost unbearable; her mastery is truly amazing.

I also went back to the Laura Lippman well for “Easy As A-B-C’, from her collection Hardly Knew Her.

Another house collapsed today. It happens more and more, especially with all the wetback crews out there. Don’t get me wrong. I  used guys from Mexico and Central America, too, and they’re great workers, especially when it comes to landscaping. But some contractors aren’t as particular as I am. They hire the cheapest labor they can get and the cheapest comes pretty high, especially when you’re excavating a basement, which has become one of the hot fixes around here. It’s not enough, I guess, to get the three-story rowhouse with four bedrooms, gut it from top to bottom, creating open, airy kitchens where grandmothers once smoked the wallpaper with bacon grease and sour beef, or carve master bath suites in the tiny middle rooms that the youngest kids always got stuck with. No, these people have to have the full family room, too, which means digging down into the old dirt basements, putting in new floors and walls. But if you miscalculate–boom. Nothing to do but bring that fucker down and start carting away the bricks.

The premise of this story; a guy who owns a construction company is hired to renovate his grandparents’ old house for a young woman he finds attractive, despite his many years of marriage–is pretty clever. It also has a lot to say, in a very sly way, about gentrification and how old neighborhoods and their character are ruined by it; this is something going on to a very large extent in New Orleans, and has been for quite some time, and there’s a strong sense for us locals that with these changes, some of what made New Orleans so special, unique and different, is also being lost. Lippman inhabits the voice of this middle-age blue-collar man perfectly; she never once slips and makes an error that jars the reader out of the voice. And as the story builds to its own inevitable dark climax, you really can’t stop reading because you really aren’t sure how she is going to finish playing her cards. That’s the great joy of Lippman, and what makes her special and unique as a writer; you’re never really sure how this is all going to play out, but she never deliberately misleads you, ever–she doesn’t cheat, and once you get there, you think, yes, that’s the only way this could end.

Seriously, her new novel dropping this week, Sunburn, is definitely one of her best; check it out, if you haven’t already.

And now, I’ve got a jam to get Scotty and the boys out of.

Everytime You Go Away

There really is nothing like your own bed.

My inability to sleep in a hotel bed is becoming increasingly problematic the older I get; it’s hard for me to do public speaking events when I have trouble sleeping. I can rest; I just don’t fall deeply asleep and instead wind up in that half-sleep all night. In the morning I feel rested physically but not mentally, and I start getting tired. I also wind up drinking a lot more caffeine than I need to stay alert and focused, which then further complicates the inability to fall asleep. Heavy heaving sigh.

But the two events I did in Alabama this weekend–Murder in the Magic City on Saturday in Birmingham at the Homewood Library; Murder on the Menu in Wetumpka Sunday at the Civic Center–are wonderful events. They draw lovely crowds, all of whom love to read and also buy books, and are incredibly well organized. A special shout out to Margaret Fenton, who organizes Murder in the Magic City, and to Tammy Lynn Rushing and Fran Holland, who put together the Wetumpka event. If you ever get invited to speak, or have the chance to attend, you really should. Despite my inability to sleep, I always feel creatively invigorated as well as personally rewarded. I also really love the little town of Wetumpka; as weird as it sounds, I would like to go back there and spend a weekend exploring. I’ve always wanted to write about a small town in Alabama; and there’s lots of material, I suspect, there. I love that there’s a casino and a meteor crater there; one of the only concrete suspension bridges in the country; and two rivers. Driving from Birmingham to Wetumpka is always interesting; as at least a third of the trip is on state highways and not interstates, and as I drove, listening to my music and observing my surroundings, again I had many flashbacks to my own childhood and my own memories of Alabama. I also got re-inspired on a short story idea I had a couple of months back, and serendipitously an anthology it would be perfect for just popped up on my radar. Huzzah!

I took today off from work–a wise move–so I can get caught up on everything that slid while I was away this weekend. I have errands to run, some cleaning to do, some writing and editing, and a lot of organizing. *Whew*. Just thinking about it makes me feel very very tired. But I slept really well last night–there’s really nothing like your own bed, as I mentioned before–and I also need to get to the gym. I missed both Friday and Sunday workouts this weekend; I can make up the Sunday workout today but Friday’s, alas, is gone. I do miss it, and my body is all, what the hell man? And with Carnival getting back into full swing on Wednesday; it’s not going to be easy. I am going to skip cardio these next few workouts; I have to walk to and from work every day from Wednesday thru Friday, so those cardio workouts aren’t as necessary. I can go lift weights today, Wednesday, and Friday; I have Lundi Gras off so can replace the Sunday workout with one on Monday, and then get back to my regular schedule after Fat Tuesday. Huzzah!

And maybe I should start looking into eating healthier, too….sob.

I did manage to keep going on the short story project while I was in Alabama; I took Laura Lippman’s Hardly Knew Her collection with me and read the stories “Femme Fatale,” “Honor Bar, ” and  “A Good Fuck Spoiled.” (There were other stories there, like “Pony Girl” and “ARM and the Woman”, which I’d already read in their original publications; I even reprinted “ARM and the Woman” in my co-edited –with J. M. Redmann–anthology Women of the Mean Streets.) I loved these stories, and one of the things I love the most about Lippman’s short stories is how dark they are; they are most definitely hard-boiled and noir. I also love that the stories are about women who aren’t what would typically be called ‘nice girls;’ these are women with shady pasts who aren’t sorry about their pasts and will do what they need to do.

“A Good Fuck Spoiled” though, isn’t about a woman, although in some ways it is; it actually spins the tired trope of the older man/younger woman adulterous affair on its head. This is one of those stories where someone who is basically your average, every day husband and father is pushed over the edge into doing something dark in order to get out of a bad situation his own apathy kind of allowed him to drift into. It’s also exceptionally clever by playing with the entire concept of ‘betrayed wife’ against ‘golf widow,’ and of course, the husband, once he does what he needs to do–sees it exactly that way; I love how Lippman shows how someone can do something amoral and then completely justify it. God, this collection is amazing. Laura Lippman is definitely respected as one of our best crime writers today–but I don’t think she gets near enough credit as a short story writer.

And on that note, I need to make a list and start checking things off it.

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Tonight

SNOW DAY!

Yes, we had freezing temperatures in New Orleans the last two nights, and when I woke yesterday morning it was only 20 degrees; it’s 21 today. There was snow and ice outside both yesterday and today–not much, it’s New Orleans, seriously–but the exciting news yesterday morning was work was canceled because the roads were closed! The text went out around nine in the morning, but I, good boy who is determined to stick to his goals that I am, was at the gym. Yes, I got up yesterday morning, bundled up against the cold, and went to the gym. There were tumbleweeds blowing through there, of course, but I did my stretches, my workout, and twenty minutes  of cardio(okay, it was 17:58, but it was nine and I thought I needed to get home and get ready for work). I came home, did the dishes, packed Paul’s lunch, got cleaned up, packed my own lunch and headed out to the car, which had ice all over its windows. I got inside, started the car and turned the defrosters on, and was about to plug my phone into the stereo when I saw that I had 15 text messages….the initial messages about the office being closed and responses from co-workers. I immediately shut off the car and came inside and put my sweats back on.

Here is the horror that was New Orleans yesterday morning:

Really not much of anything, seriously. But as I told my boss last night, I know how to drive in snow and ice, but these people down here? Not so much.

The problem, apparently, was that the bridges into New Orleans–we’re kind of an island, surrounded by water and swamp and you have to cross a bridge to get into the city no matter from what direction–were icy, and of course, that makes them dangerous because people here don’t know how to drive on ice and the bridges are all pretty high. So the bridges were closed and so commuters couldn’t get into the city; the highways are also raised in many places and therefore dangerous when icy. So basically, the entire city shut down. I could have made it to work, but hey, you know, the office was closed. Today so far I’ve not heard about anything–I doubt very seriously we would close two days in a row, and I have no problem with going in.

But it was nice having a free day to stay home with the cat, you know? I did laundry, and since it was so cold at my desk in the kitchen even with the space heater on, decided to make it a real Snow Day and simply retire to my easy chair with the cat in my lap and work on the Short Story Project. I read a Lee Child story from one of the Lawrence Block painting anthologies, and a Laura Lippman from her collection Hardly Knew Her.

Lee Child’s story was “Pierre, Lucien, and Me”, from Alive in Shape and Color:

I survived my first heart attack. But as soon as I well enough to sit up in bed, the doctor came back and told me I was sure to have a second. Only a matter of time, he said. The first episode had been indicative of a serious underlying weakness. Which it had just made worse. Could be days. Or weeks. Months at most. He said from now on I should consider myself an invalid.

I said, “This is 1928, for fuck’s sake, They got people talking on the radio from far away. Don’t you have a pill for it?”

No pill, he said. Nothing to be done. Maybe see a show. And maybe write some letters. He told me what people regretted most were the things they didn’t say. Then he left. Then I left. Now I have been home four days. Doing nothing. Waiting for the second episode. Days away, or weeks, or months. I have no way of knowing.

I’m a fan of Lee Child, and one of my favorite memories was walking to Green Goddess with Alafair Burke when Romantic Times was here one year, and we ran into Lee on the street. I was a big fan, of course, but had never met him. Alafair, of course, knew him, and she invited him to join us. So I not only got to have lunch with Alafair Burke but also Lee Child. (How awesome are my namedropping skills?)

Anyway, he was as charming and self-deprecating as I’d heard–ridiculously tall and slender as well.

I love his Reacher series, but am many years behind on it, alas–so many books, so little time–but this story was short and quite lovely. The main character, as you can tell from the opening, is dying, and reflecting on his life; thinking back on whom he might need to apologize to or make amends with, and cannot really think of anyone. Then a name pops into his head; a millionaire he rather swindled, and the tale of the swindle makes up the rest of the story. The voice is charming and the swindle itself isn’t really that terrible, as far as these things go; he didn’t cause any harm, really, even if what he did was a crime.

I then moved on to Laura Lippman’s “Hardly Knew Her”, from her amazing collection Hardly Knew Her:

Sofia was a lean, hipless girl, the type that older men still called a tomboy in 1975, although her only hoydenish quality was a love of football. In the vacant lot behind the neighborhood tavern, the boys welcomed her into their games. This was in part because she was quick, with sure hands. But even touch football sometimes ended in pile-ups, where it was possible to steal a touch or two and claim it was accidental. She tolerated this feeble groping most of the time, punching the occasional boy who pressed too hard too long, which put the others on notice for a while. Then they forgot, or it happened again–they touched, she punched. It was a price she was more than willing to pay for the exhilaration she felt when she passed the few yew berry bushes that marked the end zone, a gaggle of boys breathless in her wake.

But for all the afternoons she spent at the vacant lot, she never made peace with the tricky plays–the faked handoffs, the double pumps, the gimmicky laterals. It seemed cowardly to her, a way for less gifted players to punish those with natural talent. It was one thing to spin and feint down the field, eluding grasping hands with a swivel of her nonhips. But to pretend the ball was somewhere it wasn’t struck her as cheating, and no one could ever persuade her otherwise.

Sofia, called Fee by her family and by no one else–she won’t allow it–has a father with a gambling problem; he plays in a game in the neighborhood tavern every Friday night. When he does well, there are gifts for the family on Saturday; when he doesn’t, he takes those gifts in the middle of the night and pawns or sells them, or turns them over as payment for a debt. He’s not a good bluffer, like his daughter, depending on the luck of the draw for his success or failure. But Fee is given a lovely amethyst necklace for her birthday–an heirloom–and when her father takes it to pay a debt, Fee is finished with her father, finished with this existence, and decides she is getting her necklace back. How this all plays out for Fee is a coming-of-age tale like no other I’ve read; one that only a talent like Laura Lippman could write. This collection of short stories is really quite extraordinary; as is the Block anthology; y’all really need to read these two books if you are a fan of short stories.

I also started watching, of all things, original episodes of Scooby Doo Where Are You? through Amazon Prime; I’ve been thinking a lot about Scooby Doo and its predecessor, Jonny Quest, since getting to meet one of the directors/animators for Hanna-Barbera at Comic-Con a couple of weeks ago. Jonny Quest is actually the first memory I have of watching something mystery/adventure related, and my love for Jonny Quest never really abated; I think, therefore, that the show was what triggered my lifelong love of mysteries and the crime genre; Scooby Doo came along around the time I was discovered the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden. I’ll keep watching and musing about this some more, before making a post. I also still owe a post about I Tonya. I also finished reading Joan Didion’s Miami last night; so I’ll have to post about that as well.

So, that was how I spent my Snow Day; resting and relaxing and reading. It was actually quite lovely; we watched two episodes of Broadchurch last night and only have three to go before finishing the show. This third season is also quite good, and it’s cool how they’ve woven characters from the initial story into the present investigation; this entire season is an exploration about sexual assault, sex in genre, and porn. I am looking forward to seeing how it all plays out.

And now, back to the spice mines. As I said, I don’t think we’ll get another Snow Day today, so I have to get back to work. But how lovely to have a day where I didn’t really have to do anything; it’s been a long time. (Okay, I did the dishes and a load of laundry, but overall, it was a light responsibility day.)

 

 

Church of the Poison Mind

Sue Grafton very famously said that if you want something, you have to voice that desire out loud; say it to someone.

It’s very strange; we are often taught–at least I was–that ambition in slight moderation is a good thing, but over-weaning ambition is a bad thing. I was taught that bragging is unbecoming; because if you truly did something well or a great job at something, you wouldn’t need to boast, would you? This was drilled into my head for as long as I can remember: you get complimented, you don’t brag, and if you do get complimented, you are gracious and self-deprecating.

This is so deeply ingrained in me that it is very hard for me to be ambitious, or share my ambitions with anyone; it’s hard for me to take pride in what I’ve accomplished; and I always look for a way to turn any compliment into a “if I can do it, anyone can” kind of thing.

Another friend of mine thinks daily affirmations is also a way to get what you want; if you say what you want out loud to your mirror (or your computer, whatever), you can create the kind of mindset that will help you attain your goals. I wrote some out last year, at the beginning of the year, but after a few weeks I started feeling self-conscious about doing it, kind of silly, and I stopped.

Self-defeating, isn’t it?

So, in the interests of breaking this cycle, and of getting better at taking compliments and believing more in myself, here are some goals I want to achieve:

I will take my career to go to the next level.

I will get an agent.

I will write reviews for the New York Times.

I will sell short stories to high paying markets.

I will get a story selected for the Best American Mystery Short Stories series.

I will get a short story published as part of the Bibliophile series.

I will win a major writing award.

Whew. I already feel like writing all the down is going to jinx me in some way. NO NEGATIVITY NO NEGATIVE THOUGHTS.

So, there’s that. I’ve also made some great progress on the Short Story Project, including “Dear Penthouse Forum (A First Draft” and “The Babysitter’s Code.”

You won’t believe this, but this really did happen to  me just last fall, and all because I was five minutes late, which seemed like a tragedy at the time. “It’s only five minutes,” that’s what I kept telling the woman behind the counter, who couldn’t be bothered to raise her gaze from her computer screen and make eye contact with me. Which is too bad, because I don’t need much to be charming, but I need something to work with. Why did they make so many keystrokes, anyway, these ticket clerks? What’s in the computer that makes them frown so? I had the printout for my e-ticket, and I kept shoving it across the counter, and she kept pushing it back to me with the tip of a pen, the way I used to with my roommate Bruce’s dirty underwear, when we were in college. I’d rounded it up with a hockey stick and stashed it in the corner, just to make a pathway through our dorm room. Bruce was a goddamn slob.

“I’m sorry,” she said, stabbing that one key over and over. “There’s just nothing I can do for you tonight.”

And so begins yet another delightful Laura Lippman story, only written in the style of a letter to Penthouse Forum. That premise, very clever in and of itself, also makes the story a bit of a time capsule; does Penthouse and it’s sister digest of letters, Penthouse Forum Letters, even exist anymore? How long before no one even remembers their existence anymore? And why did I not ever try to write them? It was good money. But I am digressing. This clever story goes on to have our main character trapped in the Baltimore airport overnight; unable to swing the money for an airport hotel or can back to his apartment, and then a beautiful woman in her thirties shows up to not only save the day for him, but to entice him with the possibility of incredible, strings-free sex. (Which was pretty much the theme of every letter to Penthouse Forum; there were erotic flash fiction.) But being a Lippman story, there’s more going on than just incredible, no strings attached sex, and when the story turns, it’s unexpected and quite delightful.

This second story from Hardly Knew Her, “The Babysitter’s Code,” was originally published in Plots with Guns in 2005; and this is the period when Lippman moved from her delightful Tess Monaghan series (which I should reread) to writing her stand-alone thrillers; or literary fiction about crime, which is what they really should be described as. That broadening of her scope, and stretching of her talents, is very clear in this story.

The rules, the real ones, have seldom been written down, yet every girl knows them. (The boys who babysit don’t, by the way. They eat too much, they leave messes, they break vases while roughhousing with the kids, but the children adore the boys who babysit, so they still get invited back.) The rules are intuitive, as are most things governing the behavior of teenage girls. Your boyfriend may visit unless it’s explicitly forbidden, but the master bedroom is always off-limits, just as it would be in your own house. Eat what you like, but never break the seal on any bag or box. Whatever you do, try to erase any evidence of your presence in the house by evening’s end. The only visible proof of your existence should be a small dent on a sofa cushion, preferably at the far end, as if you were too polite to stretch across its entire length. No parent should come home and peer into the Pringles can–or the Snackwell’s box or the glass jar of the children’s rationed Halloween candy–and marvel at your capacity. There is nothing ruder that a few crumbs of chips at the bottom of a bag, rolled and fastened with one of those paper clips, or a single Mint Milano resting in the last paper cup.

This story is more of a character examination than an actual story, and it’s also slightly reminiscent of Raymond Carver’s “Neighbors,” and talks about an essential truth we all tend to really ignore: when someone is alone in our homes, whether they are watching our children or pet-sitting or cleaning, they are privy to our secrets. And this house has plenty of secrets, in this affluent suburb of Baltimore; secrets that are too hard for our young babysitter to resist, as she snoops through the lady of the house’s closet and underwear drawers, and observes the crumbling marriage of the wealthy homeowner, his much younger trophy wife, and their genetically damaged baby. This story is both wistful and sad, more so than suspenseful, although the fear of being caught is always there. It’s also a very insightful look at how a teenage girl’s mind works. Brava, Ms. Lippman, brava.

I also discovered a volume I’d forgotten, and was very excited to rediscover. I’d forgotten that one year Sue Grafton skipped a book in the Alphabet Series and instead published a short story collection, Kinsey and Me, and I am really looking forward to diving into it. Yay!

I am really enjoying the Short Story Project of 2018.

Here’s a hunk for you.

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