Sweet Love

Wednesday morning, and it’s August. The end of summer is drawing nigh–although really, there’s at least another month and a half ahead of us–but I am also trying not to get upset with myself for how little I got done in July; it was, after all, an extremely hot and humid month and just having to go outside was draining. I also overslept this morning, and thus don’t have time for the gym; but I can make it tomorrow morning and even if I oversleep then as well, I don’t have to go into the office until two so I’ll still have time.

I worked on “Please Die Soon” a bit last night, but it dragged and I couldn’t really get into the rhythm of it. I am going to try again a bit today, but it’s a tricky story that I hope I can pull off. We shall see, won’t we?

Later this month I am going to focus the Short Story Project on Florida Happens, and every day I hope to talk about one of the short stories and provide some background on the story from the author, and some background on the author as well. It’s a terrific book, quite frankly, and you definitely should preorder it. If you are coming to Bouchercon, it will be there available for sale, and we are doing a launch event on Thursday at 1 pm that day, where you can get your copy signed by as many of the authors as humanly possible.

Here’s the Table of Contents:

Intro by Tim Dorsey

The Burglar Who Strove to Go Straight by Lawrence Block

The Best Laid Plans by Holly West

There’s An Alligator in My Purse by Paul D. Marks

Mr. Bones by Hilary Davidson

Cold Beer No Flies by Greg Herren

Frozen Iguana by Debra Lattanzi Shutika

The Fakahatchee Goonch by Jack Bates

The Case of the Missing Pot Roast by Barb Goffman

How to Handle a Shovel by Craig Pittman

Postcard for the Dead by Susanna Calkins

The Hangover by John D. MacDonald

Muscle Memory by Angel Luis Colon

The Unidentifieds by J. D. Allan

All Accounted for at the Hooray for Hollywood Hotel by Eleanor Cawood Jones

Southernmost Point by Neil Plakcy

Quarters for the Meter by Alex Segura

Breakdown by Brendan DuBois

Winner by Michael Wiley

Frontier Justice by John M. Floyd

When Agnes Left Her House by Patricia Abbott

The Ending by Reed Farrel Coleman

Intro by Tim Dorsey

The Burglar Who Strove to Go Straight by Lawrence Block

The Best Laid Plans by Holly West

There’s An Alligator in My Purse by Paul D. Marks

Mr. Bones by Hilary Davidson

Cold Beer No Flies by Greg Herren

Frozen Iguana by Debra Lattanzi Shutika

The Fakahatchee Goonch by Jack Bates

The Case of the Missing Pot Roast by Barb Goffman

How to Handle a Shovel by Craig Pittman

Postcard for the Dead by Susanna Calkins

The Hangover by John D. MacDonald

Muscle Memory by Angel Luis Colon

The Unidentifieds by J. D. Allan

All Accounted for at the Hooray for Hollywood Hotel by Eleanor Cawood Jones

Southernmost Point by Neil Plakcy

Quarters for the Meter by Alex Segura

Breakdown by Brendan DuBois

Winner by Michael Wiley

Frontier Justice by John M. Floyd

When Agnes Left Her House by Patricia Abbott

The Ending by Reed Farrel Coleman

Terrific, right?

Today’s short story, for the Short Story Project, is “Vincent Black Lightning’ by Tyler Dilts,  from Crime + Music, edited by Jim Fusilli.

It was the photo that got to Beckett. An old black-and-white eight-by-ten, yellowing around the edges, in a timeworn black frame. In it, a mean wearing nothing but a bathing cap, Speedo briefs, and sneakers was lying prone on an ancient motorcycle, his arms reaching forward to the narrow handlebars, his crotch perched over the read wheel, and his legs extended back into the air while he Supermanned across the desert floor.

The old dead man had the photo on his lap when he shot himself and some of the blood spatter had misted the glass. He hadn’t done a very good job of it. The muzzle of the snub-nosed revolver wasn’t angled squarely at the center of his skull and the bullet ripped open his forehead. A flap of skin and bone hung down over his right eye. Beckett wondered if there had been enough damage to the brain to kill him, or if he’d bled out. Either way, he was still just as dead.

This is a short, quirky story, about the police looking into the suicide of a man who was a bad father and all around kind of a jerk; it’s very well written, with strong characters, with a lovely jolt of a twist at the end.

And now back to the spice mines.

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Election Day

So, yesterday I managed to finish the rough (very rough) first draft of “A Whisper from the Graveyard.” It was a bit of a relief, really; I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to finish it but somehow I managed it, and yes, let’s  hear it for the boy, shall we?

It definitely needs work–the voice isn’t quite right yet–and there are story tweaks that also need doing, but I fucking finished the first draft.

Huzzah!

Today is my long day at the office, but I slept deeply and well last night–I actually went to the gym after I got off work! Yes, that’s twice in three days I’ve lifted weights. Unfortunately, I am going back to my “ease-back-into-it” phase of one set of 15 reps with a light weight/full  body workout (because it’s been so long since I’ve lifted weights) but it feels great to be getting back into a good routine again. I also wore a tank top to the gym last night instead of a baggy, sleeved T-shirt and was amazed to see that my upper body still has some definition, particularly around the shoulders and upper arms. Yes, apparently all of the fat weight I’ve put on is strictly around the middle and in the love handles. Hurray! But the good news is once I started burning fat weight off again, the midsection will start to look better and less enormous.

Here’s hoping, at any rate.

I’m also hoping to make it to the gym tomorrow morning before work.

I also worked on my story “Please Die Soon” a bit last night; not much, not even a hundred words, but I like this story and am hoping to turn it into something relatively decent.

Today, for the Short Story Project, we have Galadrielle Allman’s story “Only Women Bleed” from the anthology Crime + Music, edited by Jim Fusilli:

Once the curving maze of manicured streets that surrounded the Ponte Vedra Country Club was behind us and the wealthiest kids dropped at their doorsteps, our bus driver, Sherry Walker, began to relax. Each day as she settled the yellow Blue Bird school bus at the long red light between Kmart and the massive used-car lot with the fluttering pennants strung up high, Miss Walker would pull a pair of pink rubber flip-flops out of an Army duffel she kept tucked under the driver’s seat, kick off her gray sneakers and groan with relief. Her heels were permanently stained with beach tar and the pink polish on her toes was chipped and dirty. The last half-hour of my two hour ride home from school was shared with only three other kids, all of them boys who also lived at the funky end of the Jacksonville Beaches, near the cheap motels, crumbling condos, drive-thru liquor stores, and tourist gift shops stuffed with dyed sea shells and cheap beach towels. Miss Walker told the four of us beach kids we could call her Sherry, as long as all the rich kids were gone, but that never felt right. She told us she lived down at the Beaches too, off Atlantic Boulevard behind the old Pick ‘n Save building that had stood empty for years. I thought of her whenever my mom drove by the wrecked store, its broken windows showing the topped shelves and tangled wires inside.

This is a terrific story; self-contained, about a young girl coming into the blossom of young womanhood–getting her period–and how that extrapolates out into changes in her relationships with boys, how her life is going to change going forward, and whether a horrible story told to her by the bus driver, Sherry–a great character; one I would have liked to have known more about–is true or not; and the growing awareness of how society, and its attitudes towards women as well as towards violence against women, are going to affect her going forward.

Well done!

And now back to the spice mines.

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Do What You Do

Ah, it’s only midweek and I’ve not made much progress on anything; the kitchen is a mess, and time is just slipping through my fingers on a daily basis. It’s a frustrating feeling, made even all the more frustrating because I know, even as I procrastinate, that I am going to deeply regret the procrastination the following day; and yet, I do it. I suppose this would be fodder for my therapist; why do I defeat myself all the time, or set myself up to fail? Is it a fear of failure, so if I do it to myself it won’t feel like failure?

These are the mysteries of Greg that I ponder on a daily basis.

I did work on a story yesterday, rather than the Scotty book or the website writing I’d promised to do, which I need to do, both of which I should just fucking do and get out of the way. Eye roll.  The story isn’t one I am sure about; it’s one that I originally wrote back in the late 1980s during one of my I’m going to take this writing thing seriously even though I have no idea what I’m actually doing periods when I used to write piles of short stories (rather like I have done this year already), and it’s one that I’ve always thought would work. I’ve taken a run at it again several times over the years, but at last I think I have it in a place where it will actually work. The voice is the key to this story, and I think I’m getting it right; the story itself is working itself out, but once I am finished with it this time around I need to go back and make sure I’ve got the voice right. This is, of course, not one of the stories I’m including in the collection, or the one I need to get the edits done on (of course, see what I mean about being self-defeating?), and the irony, of course, is that the edits aren’t that involved; and yet somehow I just can’t make myself do them.

Idiot.

But so it goes, and how it goes every day of my life. I am often called prolific, which always amuses me to a degree; I think of myself as lazy, because I know how much more I could get–or should be getting–done. I also know about all the time I waste, and how that time could have been used ever so much more productively.

In my own defense, however, I will say that I like this story I am working on–“Fireflies”–and I’ve always liked the story, and am glad that I am finally getting to it. I have so many story partials; so many stories that have been dancing around elusively in my brain for so long, yet whenever I try to finish them they dance away just out of the reach of my fingertips; “Fireflies” is one of those stories. It’s nice to finally be getting it finished, even though I should be working on other things. But I’ve diagnosed what’s wrong with both “Don’t Look Down” and “My Brother’s Keeper” this week; I’ve also figured out what’s wrong with “Once a Tiger” and how I can move forward with it. These are good things, really; and I am getting somewhere with the Scotty book as well with my brainstorming.

I just need to get past this feeling that Chapter Eleven is such a sloppy mess that I don’t want to even look at it again. I either need to go fix it, or move on to Chapter Twelve instead of agonizing over it like an idiot.

We started watching Shooter, a really terrific Ryan Philippe series last night; I think it was a limited series–a one-off, because I don’t really see how it could go another season. He plays one of the top Marine sharpshooter/snipers, who has retired; he is dragged back into the business by an old Marine buddy who now works for the Secret Service to figure out how someone is going to try to assassinate the president. He doesn’t realize he is being set up to take the fall for the assassination, and the conspiracy runs pretty fricking deep; but he manages to get away from the authorities and has to prove his innocence. It’s pretty good–and Ryan Philippe never disappoints. I’ve been a fan since his days as gay teenager Billy Douglas on One Life to Live back in the early nineties; and I am glad to see him keeping his career going on television now that he’s no longer in demand for film roles. He really makes a hot dad.

I also read two short stories for the Short Story Project. First up was “A Bus Ticket to Phoenix” by Willy Vlautin, from Jim Fusilli’s Crime Plus Music:

Otis woke that morning to Lenny in the bathroom yelling on the phone. It was past 11 a.m. at Winner’s Casino in Winnemucca, Nevada. Under the covers he shivered in the cold and could his breath fall out and disappear into the room. He got up to find the window open and the heat off.

He set the thermostat to high, shut the sliding glass window, and looked out to see some snow falling. It covered the van and trailer and the houses behind the motel. He stood seventy-seven years old, tall and thin with greasy brown hair. He found his clothes on the floor, dressed, and walked across the street to the casino. He used the toilet, lost five dollars on video poker, and went to the casino restaurant for breakfast.

Vlautin, the author, is a seasoned professional musician, which explains why this story rings so true and authentic, I suspect. Some old guys, professional musicians who are now getting old and have never made it big, just always managed to find work and have spent almost their entire lives on the road, are now touring with some musclebound young up and comer in country music. The crime is that their stuff keeps disappearing, with something being stolen at every stop on this tour. The singer is kind of a dick, and so is his manager…and while the crime aspect of the story isn’t it’s strength, the depiction of the lonely, melancholy life on the road–and coming to the end of your lives without ever having made it big while continuing on because you can’t do anything else, is the most poignant and powerful part of this story.

I then moved back to Ross Macdonald’s The Archer Files, for another Lew Archer story, “Wild Goose Chase.”

The plane turned in towards the shoreline and began to lose altitude. Mountains detached themselves from the blue distance. Then there was a city between the sea and the mountains, a little city made of sugar cubes. The cubes increased in size. Cars crawled like colored beetles between the buildings, and matchstick figures hustled jerkily along the white morning pavements. A few minutes later I was one of them.

The woman who had telephoned me was waiting at the airport, as she had promised. She climbed out of her Cadillac when I appeared at the entrance to the waiting room, and took a few tentative steps towards me. In spite of her height and her blondness, the dark harlequin glasses she wore have her an oddly Oriental look.

“You must be Mr. Archer.”

A man is on trial in this unnamed northern or central California city for the murder of his much older, much wealthier wife. He clearly killed her for her money, or so the prosecution would have you believe. His only defense is at the time of the murder, he was with another woman–another woman whom he will not name, despite her being his only real chance at acquittal since everyone thinks he’s guilty. It is this woman who has hired Archer, and she has her own reasons for not wanting to be named…and so as Archer goes about his investigation, another murder is committed and he finally solves the case by finding the real killer…and yet everyone involved is guilty to some degree; perhaps not legally, but at least morally. This is the kind of case where the detective needs a long hot shower after to wash the stink off; which is of course, for me as a reader, the best kind of story. (Oh, yes, all that time period racism and misogyny is on display in this story; which kind of, as always, put me off–as you can see in the above opening paragraphs of the story.)

And now, to stop procrastinating and get back to the spice mines.

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What About Love

It is a lovely spring morning in New Orleans, and the sun is particularly, almost obnoxiously, bright. I woke up early after a short night’s sleep, but it was also a particularly restful sleep; I also broke out the cappuccino machine this morning and had one of those as I checked my email and prepared to face the day. In other words, I am surprisingly rested and chipper this morning; I’m not sure what that means for the rest of the day, but so be it.

The Edgars are this week, and Malice Domestic is this coming weekend; gatherings of crime writers where many of my friends will also be. I do hate missing gatherings of crime writers, and it is my goal that one of these years I am going to attend as many of these events as I possibly can. I miss New York, for one thing, and all my friends there; it’s been far too long since I’ve dashed up there for a lovely long weekend of martinis and lunches and gossip and dinners and talking about writing. I love talking to writers about writing; and I need to go to these things more often not just because I have a great time, but because I also draw inspiration from them and tend to refocus my energies on my writing afterwards; those events remind me why I do what I do. It’s so easy to get discouraged and feel alone out here in the hinterlands.

And I am luckier than most; New Orleans has a very vibrant literary scene.

Paul and I gave up on Friends from College last night; it’s just too difficult to watch a comedy which is predicated on a long-term affair between two married people, particularly when one of the couples is trying to have a baby. It may sound prudish, but I don’t find adultery particularly entertaining as a plot device for comedy; particularly when it’s straight couples who have supposedly committed to monogamy. I just don’t see how this is going to remain funny when they got caught–and they are obviously going to get caught; and their inability to stop seeing each other on the sly is kind of played for laughs. You just know the season finale is going to be the pregnant wife finding out that not only has her husband cheated on her for twenty years but with a woman she thinks is her friend all this time.

Yeah, I fail to see the humor in that.

The male adulterer is a literary writer who is now determined to sell out for money; there was some humor in that, particularly in scenes with his agent, also one of their friends from college, played by Fred Savage–who is also gay, and whose partner, played by Billy Eichner, is the OB/GYN who is helping them with fertility treatments and the in-vitro process. Yeah, this isn’t going to end well, and with each passing episode it seems even less funny. It’s a pity; they could have eliminated the affair and done the show as a kind of St. Elmo’s Fire update show; with them dealing with middle age and getting older and still not having achieved everything they want from life.

But then that would be thirtysomething, and it’s already been done.

Now, I don’t know what we’re going to try to watch next. But I am also very excited because this is the week I am cutting off the cable. Yes, I am entering the twenty-first century and its time to stop paying the cable bill. We stream everything, and the only thing that had kept me tied to the cable company was college football and the Saints; and I can get that thru Hulu Live for a LOT LESS than what I am paying the cable company. So, this week I am cutting back to wireless service only from the cable company; and if I can find a reliable, less expensive company for that, Cox will be gone for good from my life.

Huzzah!

I also read some short stories.

First up is “The Long Lament” by Brendan DuBois, from Jim Fusilli’s Crime Plus Music:

The word went out that October that the head of the Campbell clan was dying, and for the next few days a steady stream of family members, relatives, and supplicants made their way to the city of Dundee, Maine, where a part of the widespread Campbell family arrived from the Highlands when the world-wide Great Depression had struck nearly ninety years earlier.

They drove in from the rest of the New England states, others took the ferry down from Nova Scotia, and a fair number flew into the Portland International Jetport from across the world, including Duncan Campbell–the younger son of the dying Colin Campbell–who had flown in to Maine from Phoenix, where he had lived for the past twelve years. Duncan’s oldest brother, William,  was already in Dundee, where he had never left. For the past several days, William had been keeping watch over his dying father in the upper floor of his modest two-story home in the Highlands section of Dundee, which offered a grand view of the rocky harbor.

Brendan DuBois is one of those writers you can always count on for a good, well-written story that will surprise you. This story is no different; it starts out with a younger son coming home with his wife to pay his respects to his father before he dies. As the story progresses, we learn the father is a crime lord and his older brother is a monster; the wife is Latina and the entire family are racists. And then the fun begins. As I said, Brendan never disappoints.

Next up in Crime Plus Music was “Unbalanced” by Craig Johnson.

The only part of her clothing that was showing were the black combat boots cuffed with a pair of mismatched green socks. She was waiting on the bench outside the Conoco station in Garryowen, Montana. When I first saw her; it was close to eleven at night and if you’d tapped the frozen Mail Pouch thermometer above her head it would’ve told you that it was twelve degrees below zero.

I was making the airport run to pick up my daughter, Cady, who had missed her connection from Philadelphia in Denver and was now scheduled to come in just before midnight. The Greatest Legal Mind of Our Time was extraordinarily upset but had calmed down when Id told her we’d stay in Billings that night and do some Christmas shopping the next day before heading back home. I hadn’t told her we were staying at the Dude Rancher Lodge, one of my favorites because of the kitschy, old brick courtyard and fifties coffee shop. Cady hated it.

This story is poignant and sad, but not terribly sad; it’s about the bonding of two strangers in a truck during the Christmas season and during a snowstorm; oddly enough, they bond over music and she resets the sound balances on his truck stereo to make the music sound better. It seemed like a Christmas story in some ways; one of those wonderfully sentimental stories that doesn’t cross the line into cheapness and manipulation. Craig Johnson is a superb writer, and this story really shows that.

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Lay Your Hands on Me

I managed to get all the errands done yesterday, and didn’t feel exhausted until I was in the process of putting away all the groceries and things. I went to both the grocery store and Costco yesterday; I was rather impressed that I wasn’t worn out much sooner. I did get the bedding laundered as well. But I didn’t get any writing done; I am going to need to do that today.

There are a lot of things I am going to need to do today. Sigh.

I’ve been invited to contribute to an anthology; and I am not certain I have anything ready to send along. I do have this one incredibly disturbing story that I would like to make even more disturbing–that’s just how I roll–and I need to get back to work on the Scotty draft. I’d like to revise Chapter 11 a bit today, get it cleaned up more so it isn’t nearly as sloppy as it currently is, and I want to get these other two stories cleaned up as well. I need to spend some more time with “Don’t Look Down” than I have been; I need to get inside the characters more, understand who they are better, and then I think the story will wind up being a lot more strong. The same goes with the Chanse story; the story is really about his relationship with his brother and that’s not strong enough in the story as it sounds right now. That is also, I think, the problem with the Scotty book. I need to spend some time today with it as well, figuring out motivations and so forth.

Ah, being a writer. Always such a challenge.

We finished watching Collateral last night, and I was rather pleased with it; it was written by David Hare, the playwright, and you could tell it was written by someone good. Carey Mulligan was terrific, and I highly recommend it for anyone who enjoys complex, multi-layered crime dramas. I think tonight we may watch Justice League, to just to see if it really is as terrible as everyone seemed to think; I didn’t hate either Man of Steel or Batman vs. Superman, so I am not going into it as a hater.

I’m also still reading Tinseltown, which I am greatly enjoying. I don’t know a lot about the early days of Hollywood; the early 1920’s and late 19-teens, other than what I know from reading biographies of David O. Selznick, whose father was a producer and tried to build up a studio at the same time Adolph Zukor was building Paramount, and before the big merger that created Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). So all this is new information to me, and William J. Mann is a terrific historian and researcher. (I am more familiar with later periods of Hollywood, but hardly an expert.) I’ve always wanted to write about Hollywood’s past; I have an idea for a noir novel to be set in the late 1940’s, but my lack of familiarity with the nuts and bolts of Hollywood in that period makes it difficult–or rather, makes my already vast insecurity about writing about another period even stronger. Although I’ve already written one short story about that time–an ambiguous setting of the early 1950’s–I don’t know. Maybe I should try it as a short story first, see if I can get the sense of the period?

I don’t know.

I’m also saddened to say that I’ve now finished reading both of Lawrence Block’s art-inspired anthologies, In Sunlight or in Shadow and Alive in Shape and Color, but I’ve heard through the grapevine that he is putting together another, which is great. So, for today’s edition of the Short Story Project, I am sad to say this is the last story from a Block anthology: “A Woman in the Sun,” by Justin Scott, from In Sunlight or In Shadow.

Could she change his mind? Four steps to the open window, lean out and call, “Don’t.”

Or walk to the window and call, “Go ahead, do it.Good luck.”

Or stand here and do nothing.

He had left her his last cigarette. She had talked him into leaving the gun and he had kept his word. It was still on the night table, wrapped in one of her stockings. She had the time of the cigarette to make up her mind. More time, if she didn’t smoke it. Let it smoulder.

This is an interesting story; in that it leaves more questions unanswered than it actually answers. We never know the characters’ names, nor do we really know what has brough them to this point. All we do learn, as the story progresses, is that both are at the end of their ropes and done, basically; they are both ready to die. The only question is whether she will stop him or will she join him, and this rather uninvolved, distant approach makes the story even more poignant and sad; there’s a very strong sense of melancholy that runs throughout this story, and the reader soon realizes you don’t have to know the whys and hows and whats of their pasts–all you need to know and feel is their now.

Powerful.

I then started reading through Jim Fusilli’s Crime Plus Music, and the next story up was”Me Untamed” by David Liss.

She covered the black eye with makeup, but I could still see it was there, something alien and unaccountable. Like a vandal’s scrawl across a museum painting, the dull outline of her bruise was an outrage. Carla smiled and greeted everyone good morning, defying us to say a word, to let our eyes linger too long. It was, I supposed, how she protected herself.

Jim Baron, the senior partner in the practice, met my gaze and flicked his head toward Carla as she walked past with a stack of case folders under her arm. Carla was getting ready, as we did every Tuesday and Thursday, for surgeries–no office visits on those days, just procedures. The practice felt a bit like a gastrointestinal assembly line, and sometimes I hated how we moved patients in and out, hardly taking the time to look at them, but Jim cracked the whip. It was volume, volume, volume as far as he was concerned. We were there to heal, not to socialize, and the more healing, the better.

The point of view is that of a divorced, shy, quiet Milquetoasty doctor,  who is kind of in love with Carla, or maybe he is not. She’s married to a thug of a guy, a man’s man, who works out and so forth, the kind of man a Milquetoast would hate. And he decides to do something about Carla’s abuse…decides to make himself into the kind of man he’s always wanted to be, the kind of man that he thinks Carla would like and love. This is a terrific story, with a terrific twist at the end that lifts it up even higher in terms of craft. Well done, sir!

And now, back to the spice mines.

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Would I Lie To You?

Is it sad that I will read a themed anthology, and then will think up a short story based on that theme that I would have written had I been asked?

I find myself doing this a lot lately; I think it has a lot to do with the Short Story Project and reading themed anthologies. As I read the terrific stories, I start wondering what would I have written for this had I been asked and then my mind starts to wander a little bit, which is both irritating and distracting. Yesterday I went looking for Edward Hopper paintings, and found two that would have worked as story inspirations. One day last week I found an image of my favorite Salvador Dali painting on-line, and grabbed it to my desktop so I could look at it and wonder what kind of story it would inspire within me. And obviously, Jim Fusilli’s Crime Plus Music made me wonder what song would inspire me to write a crime/music story, and of course, thought of a Stevie Nicks/Fleetwood Mac song, and then scribbled down a potential title and some thoughts on the story.

Because I don’t have anything else to write, obviously.

I did get some things done yesterday; I cleaned the kitchen and get caught up on laundry. I must have left my copy of Bryan Camp’s The City of Lost Fortunes at the office, as I could put my hands on it anywhere, which was really annoying as I had intended to finish reading it this weekend; I can’t find it, so I must have taken it out of my backpack at the office on Thursday and walked out at the end of the day without putting it back. At least, I hope that’s what happened to it. I’d really hate the have to wait until I buy the hardcover before I can finish reading it. But in lieu of that, I read a shit ton of short stories yesterday, getting very caught up on the Short Story Project. I will probably get even further on that today, since I don’t have my novel to read. Today I need to write and edit, finish cleaning the living room, and get everything ready for tomorrow; the final day of my three day weekend, and I need to definitely make progress, else I will spend most the week berating myself until the next weekend rolls around. Paul will return home on Wednesday. If I can simply stick to what I need to do, and check things off the list, I can go to work on Tuesday feeling terribly accomplished.

It’s very cold this morning; it rained most of the day yesterday, so today we have the predictable temperature drop. It’s really making me want to just curl up in the easy chair with a book–which is fine, I can do that, as long as it’s the manuscript or one of the short stories or all of the above.

Must. Stay. Focused.

I did watch a couple of movies yesterday; the original 1973 film version of Jesus Christ Superstar (I didn’t remember what a fucking hot daddy Caiaphas was) and Legion, a horror film that came and went many years ago; the Syfy series Legion, which I started watching and never finished, was a sequel of sorts to it. I never finished watching because it was difficult to find, or when I remembered to try the episodes weren’t available anymore, and having not seen the film, I was a bit lost. Now that I’ve watched the film, which I kind of liked, I am looking forward to starting the TV show over again.

All right, I need to get some things done around here. So here are two short stories I read yesterday:

First up is “Shaderoc the Soul Shaker” by Gary Phillips,  from Crime Plus Music, edited by Jim Fusilli.

On for the days when he could snort him a line of flake while some groupie was down on her knees, her head buried between his spread leather-clad legs, pleasuring him like he was a visiting pharaoh. Goddamn, that time in his room backstage at the Forum…the two big-titty blondes. Sheeet, the top of his head damn near blew off that night as they sexed him up, down, and sideways.

Churchill “Church” Gibson shook his head, regretfully cycling away from the glorious past into the stone-cold reality of now. He glared at the screen of his laptop as if it were an adversary. He put aside his coffee and tapped the keyboard and the music app replayed his most troubling tack through external speakers. The green audio readout traveling from left to right as the music filled his compact home studio space.

This is a terrific story. Gary Phillips is one of those crime writers who should be much more successful than he is; he wrote a story for Blood on the Bayou that was fantastic and this one–about a formerly successful, hard-living musician whose career has waned but has a chance to get back on top by writing the soundtrack to a film but is having a terrible time creating anything decent, is terrific. As a writer, I can certainly understand that feeling of why can’t I do this anymore and it used to be easy to do this. But as he works, he starts seeing people from his past, who talk to him and remind him of what he used to be capable of, and as he creates he remembers past times and past crimes…it’s absolutely fantastic.

Next up, also from Jim Fusilli’s Crime Plus Music, was “The Long Black Veil” by Val McDermid.

Jess turned fourteen today. With every passing year, she looks more like her mother. And it pierces me to the heart. When I stopped by her room this evening, I asked if her birthday awakened memories of her mother. She shook her head, leaning forward so her long blond hair curtained her face, cutting us off from each other. “Ruth, you’re the one I think of when people say ‘mother’ to me,” she mumbled.

She couldn’t have known that her words opened an even deeper wound inside me and I was careful to keep my heart’s response hidden from my face. Even after ten years, I’ve never stopped being careful. “She was a good woman, your mother,” I managed to say without my voice shaking.

Jess raised her head to meet my eyes then swiftly dropped it again, taking refuge behind the hair. “She killed my father,” she said mutinously. “Where exactly does ‘good’ come into it?”

This is a haunting story about love and family, friendship and class, all set in a small town somewhere which is never specifically named. McDermid, an enormously successful and award-winning crime writer (you should read her if you haven’t; start with A Place of Execution and The Mermaids Singing), manages to tell this story from two different point of views, and so captures small town America perfectly that it is almost eerie. It’s a terrific story, heartbreaking and tragic in its very simplicity. I don’t think I’ve read a McDermid short story before, but this is a great example of why her work is so popular.

And on that note, it’s back to the spice mines with me.

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Run to You

Yesterday I wrote 2700 words, which was lovely. Two more chapters and I will be at the midway point of the first draft of the Scotty book! Huzzah! I do feel like most of those words were crap, but I advanced the plot, I advanced the story, and we’re percolating right along, which was truly, well and indeed, lovely. I hope to reach the midway point of the book by the weekend, which is when I am hoping to finish revising “Don’t Look Down” and “My Brother’s Keeper,” and maybe even “The Problem with Autofill.” Huzzah! I love that I am working again, and I am trying to keep my confidence in my work up. It’s so easy to get distracted, it’s fucking easy to hit that downward spiral, and I WILL NOT HAVE THAT THIS YEAR.

Ain’t gonna happen, bitches.

I finished reading Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed this week, and I really enjoyed it. It really made me think about a lot of things, not the least of which are the on-line social media lynch mobs. I mean, there are so many truly terrible people on Twitter, trolls and bots and so forth, that it’s easy to forget that some of the people we see posting vile things, or things we totally disagree with, are people, just like we are; even though we may not agree with anything they do. I know it surprises people that I have conservative friends, but I do; and as long as they aren’t nasty and trollish, I like having them around on my social media. They do sometimes help me see things in ways that I’ve never thought about before, that may not ever have occurred to me, and I do appreciate that insight. The fact that I can see their posts and comments means that they haven’t blocked me; they may have hidden me–and to be fair, the shirtless men that get me banned all-too-frequently on Facebook might be a bit much for my conservative friends–but I also never see them saying anything homophobic or anything that makes me think they buy into the homophobic bullshit that is so frequent on their side of the spectrum; whether knowing me has anything to do with that, I don’t know. I’d like to think so, at any rate.

My next non-fiction is John Berendt’s The City of Fallen Angels. I’d forgotten I even had the book, to be honest; I was rearranging and reorganizing bookshelves the other day and there it was. VENICE!!! How could I resist? So, it’s on the nightstand for my before-I-go-to-sleep reading. I’m also itching to get back to Bryan Camp’s The City of Lost Fortunes. Seriously, pre-order the hell out of this one. You won’t be sorry.

I also read some short stories. First up is “The Misfits” by Naomi Rand, from Crime Plus Music, edited by Jim Fusilli:

Where would you have been without me, go on, tell me that why don’t you, you ungrateful bitch. I made you.

That was his parting shot to me. Johnny O believed that until the minute he cast his eyes upon you, you didn’t actually exist. My ex-manager thought I was some piece of clay he breathed that lousy cigarette breath into to coax to life.

I believed otherwise. My version is that when we met, I  had already been alive and well and living in Calabasas for seventeen years. I, Julie Weston, was a senior at Calabasas High. I’d already been accepted to my first choice school, UCLA. And why not? I had a 4.0 average. Plus, I was captain of the girl’s swimteam, lynchpin of the debate team, and to top it off, I was dating the boy most likely to be crowned prom king. So really I did exist before. Not only did I exist, I was well on my way to making my doting parents proud. But you be the judge.

I fucking loved this story; it was amazing. A chance encounter in Tower Records, and Julie joins an all-girl band called the Misfits, which begins a quick rise to stardom in the late 1970’s. It kind of reminded me of the true story about the Runaways–the all girl rock band which launched Joan Jett and Lita Ford–and some of the horrible allegations that have come out in recent years about their manager, how the girls were manipulated and/or sexually/emotionally/physically abused; I couldn’t get that out of my head as I read the story. It’s absolutely terrific, with a great ending. I have to say, I am loving reading my way through Crime Plus Music.

Next was “Rooms by the Sea” by Nicholas Christopher, from In Sunlight or in Shadow and editor Lawrence Block:

There were two doors into this house. The first, in a small unfurnished room, opened directly onto the sea. It could only be entered from the water. When it was left wide open on a sunny day, the light slanting into the room illuminated half of the near wall on a diagonal. As the sun descended to the horizon, the wall could be read like a sundial: its illuminated half shrinking until the entire wall had darkened.

The second door, in a foyer on the other side of the house, opened onto a rough path that wound through a forest and ended in an obscure park at the city limits. The fountain in that park, centered by stone mermaids that spout water, had been dry for months. The buildings that lines the city streets were red and brown. The sun ate into their brick, sending up puffs of dust. At dusk their blue windows turned amber. On the fire escapes women were smoking and reading, gazing up occasionally at the river of bruised clouds that flowed to the sea. One of them, a redhead, was reading a slim memoir entitled Rooms by the Sea, written a century ago. The author, Claudine Rementeria, was married to a Basque shipping magnate who had immigrated to America. She herself was Basque, and shortly before her untimely death at thirty, she wrote the book in her native language, Euskera, in order to please her husband. Aside from a small private printing at the time–of which only a few copies have survived–her book hadn’t been translated and published in English until recently. The redhead, Carmen Ronson, the thirty-year-old great-granddaughter of Claudine Rementeria, owned both the English translation and one of the extant Euskera copies.

This story read more as a fable; a literary story rather than a crime story, with a haunting tone to it;  Christopher did a great job creating a mood that carried through the whole story with the rhythm of the words. It’s more of a magical realism story; a fable, if you will, relating the Basques back to Atlantis and…it’s hard to describe. It’s quite good.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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All I Need

Sunday, Sunday. Can’t trust that day, especially when an hour was stolen from me during my sleep. Sunday is my sleep-in day, and while it’s not entirely unusual, I absolutely detest that I woke up at just before what-is-now-ten-thirty. Since I can’t drink coffee after noon for fear of its impact on my sleep–but I like my coffee in the morning–I will be able to have only, at most, two cups. This is also infuriating.

It’s not sunny out there this late morning, but more grayish again, as though it might rain. It may just be a cloud cover, but the sun is always bright in New Orleans; the lack of brightness is bizarre and also feels off–in addition sleeping  in until not-really-ten-thirty. But looking on the positive side, I worked out yesterday and the rest seems to have helped my muscles recover; they don’t feel either sore or tired or both this morning. I should be grateful for small victories, I suppose, and stop complaining.

I watched two more episodes of Seven Seconds last night, and it is absolutely riveting. It reminds me a lot of the lamented American Crime, where you saw everyone as three-dimensional characters; I like seeing it from every perspective, and while it’s easy to feel some sympathy for the guy who committed the actual crime and why he covered it up; the pain of the family of the victim is almost unbearable to watch–but Regina King is such an amazing and brilliant actress you can’t help but watch. I’ve always been a fan of hers; she was exceptional in American Crime, but this? Give her all the awards right now, and please cast her in everything; she is so good that as I watched I thought if I ever write a television show or movie I want to write a great part for her to play. As good as the show is, as it progresses it is starting to drift away from the nonjudgmental view that it had in the first episodes, which is fine–I think part of the reason American Crime failed to find an audience was because you didn’t know who to root for, or if you should root for anyone, which makes viewers uncomfortable, as they, for the most part, want to have good guys and bad guys–but I kind of wish they hadn’t gone so far with making the guy who committed the crime a villain. I felt sorry for him before; I am losing sympathy, and that’s why they are doing it; but when he was sympathetic it made the show more layered, complex, and nuanced.

Heavy sigh.

I got all my errands done yesterday, but forgot to get something I need for dinner today–but it’s just a twenty ounce bottle of root beer and I can walk to Walgreens and get that when I’m ready to put everything into the crock pot. The St. Patrick’s/St. Joseph’s Day Irish Channel parade is today, so I’m not moving my car. I decided to wait to go to Costco until next weekend; I am going to take one of my co-workers car shopping that day, and as punishment he’ll have to go to Costco with me when we’re finished.

I started writing yet another Chanse short story yesterday; “Once a Tiger.” It’s an idea for a Chanse novel that I had a long time ago and always wanted to write, sort of like how the Chanse short story I wrote last week was a book idea I never wrote. I had intended to get some other things done, but after the errands and the gym I was tired, so I sat down to watch Seven Seconds (Paul was at the office) and got sucked into it. I also watched two episodes of Versailles–this season is about the Affair of the Poisons–and read short stories. I need to clean today–I’m hoping it won’t rain so I can finally do the damned windows–but I also want to write today. So I should probably wrap this up and get back to work, so I can get the root beer from Walgreens and be done with it all, you know?

Sigh. Heavy lies the head, and all that, you know.

The first story I read was a reread; Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil”:

THE SEXTON stood in the porch of Milford meeting-house, pulling busily at the bell-rope. The old people of the village came stooping along the street. Children, with bright faces, tripped merrily beside their parents, or mimicked a graver gait, in the conscious dignity of their Sunday clothes. Spruce bachelors looked sidelong at the pretty maidens, and fancied that the Sabbath sunshine made them prettier than on week days. When the throng had mostly streamed into the porch, the sexton began to toll the bell, keeping his eye on the Reverend Mr. Hooper’s door. The first glimpse of the clergyman’s figure was the signal for the bell to cease its summons.

“But what has good Parson Hooper got upon his face?” cried the sexton in astonishment.

All within hearing immediately turned about, and beheld the semblance of Mr. Hooper, pacing slowly his meditative way towards the meeting-house. With one accord they started, expressing more wonder than if some strange minister were coming to dust the cushions of Mr. Hooper’s pulpit.

“Are you sure it is our parson?” inquired Goodman Gray of the sexton.

“Of a certainty it is good Mr. Hooper,” replied the sexton. “He was to have exchanged pulpits with Parson Shute, of Westbury; but Parson Shute sent to excuse himself yesterday, being to preach a funeral sermon.”

I read this story either in high school or in college originally; whenever it was that I originally read it, my young mind was bored with it and thought it rather silly. I hated The Scarlet Letter, still do so much that even thinking of rereading it gives me dyspepsia; but I greatly enjoyed The House of the Seven Gables, although I remember nothing much about it except that the old woman’s name was Hepzibah, which I always thought was a great Gothic name for a creepy old lady. Rereading this story, it made a little bit more sense to me; it’s really a parable. Parson Hooper, for a reason unbeknownst to his parishioners and to the reader, has chosen to hide his face for the rest of his life behind a black veil; I remember reading this and being deeply annoyed about never finding out the reason. But rereading it now, I got a stronger sense of it; the parson has done this and the reasons why really aren’t important; what’s important is how uncomfortable it has made everyone else, and why; it’s about human nature and psychology, and is a lot more clever than I thought as a teenager. It still, however, reads in that stilted, archaic early nineteenth century formal style that is grating and annoying to the modern reader, however.

I then moved on to “The Last Temptation of Frankie Lymon” by Peter Blauner, from the anthology Crime Plus Music, edited by Jim Fusilli. I originally bought this anthology because it had a story by Alison Gaylin inspired by a song recorded by the band X, whom I used to love in the 1980’s–the story is quite brilliant, I might add–but had never gone back and read any of the others. So, I picked it up and this is the lead-off story for the collection.

He walked into the bar wearing the jacket that Sam bought for the Ebony photo shoot last year. A mostly wool blazer with two rows of brass buttons, that must have cost–what?–like forty to fifty dollars at Blumstein’s. He felt bad because Sam was living on about two hundred a week as a food inspector in the Bronx, while trying to manage the comeback for him, But what could you do? All the star clothes he used to have in his grandmother’s closet were either child-sized and long ago outgrown or had holes in them because he’d nodded off with a cigarette in his mouth.

So now the jacket felt heavy as a burden on his shoulders as he eyed his surroundings and tried to get comfortable. The bar was around the corner from his grandmother’s and he half recognized some of the people from the neighborhood, where he hadn’t lived since back in the day. There were mailmen and bus drivers wearing turtlenecks or open-collared shirts with jeans. Doormen and janitors in T-shirts and growing out their hair into bushy naturals as they rapped effortlessly to short-skirted former double Dutch girls from the block with sleepy eyes and soft mouths, who kept going “uh-huh, uh-huh, right on” as that Gladys Knight “Grapevine” song played on the jukebox.

Frankie Lymon was a real person; the lead singer for Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, known for their hit “Why Do Fools Fall in Love”. Lymon’s story is one of those cautionary tales about the music industry, fame, and hitting it big when you’re young; he was only twenty-four when he died of an overdose–a has-been at 24. This story, which is basically a fictionalized imagining of his last day, is heartbreaking. He has fallen on hard times but has cleaned up and gotten to a point of recovery from his addiction; he’s trying to make a comeback but makes the sad, fateful decision to go into the local neighborhood bar near where he is staying with his grandmother–and runs into someone from his past, with her own broken dreams and broken life. It’s powerfully written and the characters realized strongly; you can’t stop reading even though you know it’s all a train wreck unfolding in front of you. Kudos to Blauner for such a powerful story.

I then went back to Sue Grafton’s Kinsey and Me collection, where the next offering was the story “The Parker Shotgun.”

The Christmas holidays had come and gone, and the new year was under way. January, in California, is as good as it gets–cool, clear, and green, with a sky the color of wisteria and a surf that thunders like a volley of gunfire in a distant field. My name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m a private investigator, licensed, bonded, insured; white, female, age thirty-two, unmarried, and physically fit. That Monday morning, I was sitting in my office with my feet up, wondering what life would bring, when a woman walked in and tossed a photograph on my desk. My introduction to the Parker shotgun began with a graphic view of its apparent effect when fired at a formerly nice-looking man at close range. His face was still largely intact, but he had no use now for a pocket comb. WIth effort, I kept my expression neutral as I glanced up at her.

“Somebody killed my husband.”

Grafton never disappoints, and as I have mentioned before when talking about these Chanse short stories (it pleases me to no end that I can now talk about them in the plural), reading Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone short stories, along with the Lew Archer short stories by Ross Macdonald and the Tess Monaghan ones by Laura Lippman, have been an education in writing the private eye short story; something I never felt confident about doing before. This story is excellent in that is has a great opening–how can you not keep reading after that–and Kinsey’s detecting skills are put to a great test here. I also learned a lot about shotguns in reading this story. I guess the thing that’s so terrific about reading these private eye short stories is seeing, while reading them, how they could have easily been expanded into novels while also seeing how the author pared down what could have been a novel into a pleasing, satisfying short story.

I also picked up the MWA anthology Vengeance and started reading some more of the stories in there; I believe I may have blogged about one of them already. But when reading Alafair Burke’s “The Mother”, the story began to sound familiar; and sure enough, I was right: I’d read it before. I started paging through the stories and yes, I’d read them all; I read them flying back from a trip to New York on a plane. The book includes Karin Slaughter’s chilling, and Edgar winning, short story “The Unremarkable Heart,” which is one of my favorite short stories of all time. But I had to put Vengeance back up on the shelf because I’d already read those stories, alas; I will only allow myself to reread, and write about, short stories I originally read before I started blogging back in 2004 (!), so as to avoid repetition.

And now, I am going to get my second and final cup of coffee before walking to Walgreens. Have a lovely Sunday, Constant Reader!

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