Man of Constant Sorrow

This week a new anthology with a story by one Gregalicious is dropping, The Faking of the President, edited by Peter Carlaftes and from Three Rooms Press. Three Rooms also produced the 2018 St. Petersburg Bouchercon anthology I edited, Florida Happens, and thus it was lovely to be working with Peter, Kat, and the Three Rooms Press gang again. The book has turned out to be absolutely lovely, and I couldn’t have been more pleased to be asked to write a story for this.

The concept behind the book was, of course, to create noir stories built around a president. I was torn at first when asked to choose a president; there were any number of them that I truly like and admire….yet so many mediocrities. The 1850’s, the lead up or prelude to the Civil War, has been of particular interest to me of late, and I decided to chose someone from that period, where we had a string of mediocre presidents take up residence in the White House: Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and finally James Buchanan. Buchanan is widely considered to be (or was considered to be, YMMV) the worst president in American history; he was the last president before Lincoln’s election and the outbreak of the Civil War. Buchanan did nothing to stop the coming eruption of war; if anything, he exacerbated the ill feeling between the two sections of the country. All the 1850’s presidents were Yankees with Southern sympathies; they were called “dough-faces” at the time (I don’t know why that particular term was used; so don’t ask. Google is your friend), and yes, many parallels between that time and our present day kind of exist, if you care to look to see them. Buchanan also conspired with the worst Chief Justice to ever lead our Supreme Court, Roger B. Taney, in the court decision that flamed the fans of regional hatred into an unforeseen heat that made the war even more inevitable than it already had been; Buchanan and Taney thought they were putting the slavery question to bed once and for all with the Dred Scott v. Sandford decision; by striking down the Missouri Compromise and the Kansas/Nebraska Acts as unconstitutional, the two attempted to make slavery the law of the land and permissible in the vast unsettled (by white people) territories as well as make it legal in the states that prohibited it.

Yeah, that kind of backfired.

Buchanan was also the only president who never married; and while there is certainly no proof or evidence that is conclusive, it is widely suspected that Buchanan was our first gay president. He lived, for example, for a long time with Senator Rufus King of Alabama; Andrew Jackson jeeringly called Buchanan “Aunt Fancy”; and their surviving letters bespoke an affection and longing between the two that went a bit deeper than being just good buddies. So, as a gay writer, I decided to write about Buchanan. But writing a period story set in the DC of the late 1850’s seemed a bit much and certainly more than I could handle; plus I couldn’t really come up with a plot. I thought about having Buchanan murder a slave he’d been forcing to be his lover and the ensuing cover-up; I made several abortive attempts at writing that story before finally abandoning the idea.

I had no idea what I was going to write–until I read an article on-line somewhere about Buchanan’s mysterious sexuality and sexual preferences, and the author said something along the lines of but for some historians, short of finding daguerrotypes of Buchanan naked with another man, nothing will ever serve as conclusive proof for the deniers.

And there it was. I started writing “The Dreadful Scott Decision.”

faking of the president cover

 

The cheap whiskey tasted like flavored turpentine, burning so intensely as it went down it felt like it was leaving scorch marks in its wake. Scott Devinney was just high enough from the joint he was smoking to consider that a plus—a sign that he was still alive no matter how numb he felt.

He was sitting in the dark in his cheap apartment near campus, streaming the panel he’d been on at the presidential historians’ conference at UCLA the previous weekend. It had aired live on a PBS network in Los Angeles—it took him a while to figure out how to access it, and now that he was watching it was even worse than he feared. He’d always suspected Pulitzer prize-winning historian Andrew Dickey was a homophobe; his behavior on the panel proved it without question.

Alas, Scott allowed Dickey to get under his skin. He wasn’t proud of that, and his doctoral advisor, Dr. Keysha Wells-Caldwell—also head of the department at UC-San Felice—wasn’t happy, either.

He wasn’t about to apologize to Andrew Dickey, though. He’d die first.

“You have no proof!” Dickey wagged his finger at Scott on the computer screen, his face reddened and his voice raising. “Just like the activists who try to claim Lincoln was gay without proof, there is no proof Buchanan was, either, no matter how bad you want him to be!”

He sighed and closed the window. He didn’t need to watch himself screaming in rage, embarrassing himself and the university in the process.

Which was what Keysha really cared about.

At one time, I seriously considered becoming a historian. I’ve always loved history, have loved to read it and study it,  and even write it (I still would love to do a Tuchman-like study of regnant women in the 16th century called The Monstrous Regiment of Women), but as with so many other things, poor professors in college stomped that desire right out of me. (The other problem, of course, being that I could never decide on a period to specialize in–although if forced I probably would have chosen the 16th century) I have heard, over the years, from friends who work in academia as well as reading books and so forth set in the academic world, how cutthroat and nasty the war over tenure can be; office politics as played by the Borgias or the Medici. My story “Lightning Bugs in a Jar” was sort of set in the academia milieu; I even considered writing a series about a college English professor at one time–it’s still there on the backburner; I may write it still. One of the novels I wrote under a pseudonym was set at a quasi-Seven Sisters style college in New England, and of course, my Murder-a-Go-Go’s story “This Town” was about sorority girls, and of course several Todd Gregory novels were set in fraternities.

So, what better idea for this story than a gay Buchanan historian, attempting to prove to the world that Buchanan was, indeed, the first gay president? And how far would he go to get that proof–which is the noir angle I needed for the story? And so the story was born…and you can order a copy here, or from any retailer.

And as you can see from the cover above, there are some fantastic writers who contributed to this book. I am very pleased to be sharing the table of contents with these amazing writers, and a bit humbled. Check it out–you won’t be sorry!

Talk to Me

I slept well last night, yet am still tired this morning; it’s the summer malaise, no doubt. It’s weird for me to drive around the city and still see hordes of tourists gamboling around; at this time of year New Orleans used to become a ghost town, locals fleeing the heat and humidity to beach houses (if they had them) and those who could not leave staying inside in the air conditioning as much as possible. It still concerns me, more than a little bit, that just going out into the heat on two separate occasions this weekend and then going to a dinner party on Monday had done such a thorough job of draining and depleting my energy, not to mention made it so difficult for the batteries to recharge. But I only have two days in the office next week before my 4th  of July based vacation; here’s hoping that somehow I’ll be able to get rested and manage to get things done in the meantime.

I spent nine hours yesterday testing in the CareVan; it was National HIV Testing Day and as usual, the day job partnered with Walgreens stores all over New Orleans for us to reach out and test people who might not otherwise get tested. I wasn’t, frankly, too thrilled about doing anything Walgreens-related, after the scandalous behavior of the Walgreens pharmacist in Arizona this past week, but as always in this life, one has to compromise one’s principles, and choose the battles one wants to fight. Identifying new HIV positives is my job and my calling; to help them get treatment and medical care so they don’t infect other people as well as so they remain healthy. I’ve seen too much death from HIV in my lifetime to choose moral principles over assisting those who may be in need.

It’s been, frankly, an incredibly tiresome week. First the Walgreens pharmacy nonsense, where a pharmacist was somehow allowed, by the company and the law, to put a person’s life at risk because of his “sincerely held religious beliefs”, to the Kennedy announcement and the other horrific Supreme Court decisions of this past week. I think the combination of spending so much time out in the heat did the physical damage while the other things did the emotional and intellectual draining. I slept well but still feel drained and tired, tired of having to fight, tired of having to stand up and be counted. It sometimes feels like I’ve been fighting–for my right to exist, to be who I am, to be heard–for most of my life.

It’s exhausting.

This blog began during the Bush administration after a truly terrible year that I didn’t know was simply the beginning of a run of a terrible few years; it was a way to get me to start writing again over on Livejournal and was never meant to be anything other than me being able to have a place to record my feelings, my thoughts, my observations. It was therapeutic, and it also helped to vent out a lot of anger about the injustice in the world that I saw every day; whether those injustices directly affected me or whether they did not. As I’ve gotten older I’ve stayed away from politics and policy; either from mellowing with time or just not wanting to waste the energy on arguing about things with, frankly, human garbage. I stay off Twitter most of the time because I already have to take medicine for high blood pressure; the horrible things I see on there often make my blood boil.

But while I continue to refuse to engage with the sewage, that neither makes it go away nor does it put a stop to it, and what I see going on in this country, as filtered through my marginalized gay eyes, is terrifying.

So, going forward, I will still talk about writing and books I love; about New Orleans and writers I admire. I will continue, I will go on. But I am also going to have what used to be called “Julia Sugarbaker moments”–and if that is going to offend your delicate little sensibilities, stop reading my blog and feel free to abandon me on social media.

My next story in Promises in Every Star and Other Stories was called “Son of a Preacher Man”:

The air was sticky, damp and hot as I carefully slid the screen out of my window. The only sounds in the night was the electrical humming from the street light out in front of my house and the every-present chirping of crickets. Before I climbed through the window, I stuck my head out to see if the light in my parents’ window was still out. They’d gone to bed about an hour before, but better safe than sorry. I’d been sneaking out all summer and they hadn’t caught me once. 

I jumped down into the damp grass and ran as quietly as I could down to the line of trees at the back of our property. I ducked into the trees and walked along the dry creek bed to the little dilapidated wood bridge behind the Burleson house, and sat down with my legs dangling over the side. It wasn’t midnight yet, and Andy was always late. My parents were strict, but his made mine look like—well, I didn’t know what, but something. His daddy was the preacher, and he thought his kids had to set an example for the rest of the Youth for Christ. Andy always had to help serve the Lord’s Supper at least once a week, and instead of playing summer baseball like the rest of us, he spent his summer days working on his grandpa’s farm out in the county. Preacher Burleson was a hard man whose eyes blazed with the power of the Lord who didn’t let his wife or daughters wear make-up or curl their hair.

Andy hated his daddy.

Nobody knew, except me. In front of everyone else, Andy was a good son, never contradicting his daddy, doing what he was told, minding. He studied and got good grades, knew his Bible inside and out, and had never been any trouble. But I was the only one who knew he cribbed cigarettes whenever he had the chance,  could swear like a sailor,  and hated every last adult in Corinth—probably in the whole state of Alabama, for that matter. All he ever talked about was running away, getting the hell out of Corinth, Alabama, the south. He never said where he wanted to go, but I was pretty sure anywhere else would do.

I sat there on the bridge, swatting at mosquitoes and listening to the sounds of the night. August in Alabama was like living in hell, I heard my mama say once, and she was right. The air was like a big hot wet towel pressing down on my moist skin. My armpits were already damp. I dangled my legs over the edge, swinging them like a little kid. My whole summer had revolved around sneaking out at night and meeting Andy. School was going to start in another month, football practice in two more weeks, and then these nights were going to end. I didn’t like to think about that. I wanted to believe that the summer would go on forever, and every night I’d be sneaking out to meet Andy again—

As you can tell, this was also written during that period of time when I was at war with the evangelical right. And what better way to tell them to fuck off than to write a gay erotica story about having sex with the preacher’s son? IN THE FUCKING CHURCH (literally)?

It’s another one of my Corinth stories, like “Smalltown Boy” and so many others I’ve written; even my main character in Dark Tide was from Corinth. But I love the voice of this character; the same voice I’ve used whenever I’ve written a first person short story about teens in that town, and I really think I should write an entire book using that voice.

And now back to the spice mines.

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