Always

Kansas.

We moved to Kansas the summer I turned fifteen. It was a bit of culture shock; we’d been living a middle-to-upper middle class suburb of Chicago for about four years then, after spending eight or nine years in a working-class, very blue-collar neighborhood in Chicago, populated primarily with eastern European immigrants, or second, maybe third, generation Americans from central to eastern Europe. All I really knew about Kansas, before moving there, was that it had been a part of the Dust Bowl during the depression; I’d read about “bleeding Kansas” in history books; and of course, tornadoes and The Wizard of Oz (which is a movie I’ve never cared for; I watched it once as a kid and never again). Neither Nancy Drew nor the Hardy Boys ever had an adventure there; nor had any of the other kids’ series or Scholastic Book Club mysteries I’d read. But it was in Kansas that I actually started writing seriously, and began to think about being a writer when I grew up. (It was also in Kansas that I had the bad creative writing professor, and other bad history professors; I actually cannot think of a single decent teacher I had at the university level in Kansas–but then again, I was incredibly miserable when I lived in Kansas and it’s entirely possible that misery bled over into every other aspect of my life.)

I also don’t want to make it seem as though the five or so years I spent there were completely miserable. I did have fun–I was always desperately trying to have fun to distract me from the terror that arose from my sexuality, which was a secret that must be guarded from everyone at all times; it’s laughable to think about it now, but that terror was very real to me then.

It was in Kansas I started writing about teenagers, and while none of that stuff I’d written was publishable–I still have the handwritten novel I started writing there somewhere; the thought of rereading it turns my stomach as I can only imagine how incredibly bad, trite, and cliched it all was–but those characters have lived on and appeared in my actual published work as an adult; primarily I kept the character names and the basis of who they were, fleshing them out and (hopefully) making them three dimensional. Sara is, to date, the only book I’ve published that is set in Kansas; Laura, the main character in Sorceress, is also from Kansas–but the book is set in California. And of course I’ve been playing with the Kansas book now for something like fifteen years–hopefully, that will be finished and done this year.

I love to read about Kansas, and two of my favorite crime writers–Lori Roy and Sara Paretsky–are also from Kansas; Lori’s first novel, Bent Road (it’s brilliant, as is everything she writes) is set in Kansas; Sara, of course, primarily writes about Chicago but wrote a stand alone several years ago called Bleeding Kansas I’ve always wanted to get around to. Nancy Pickard also wrote two stunningly brilliant novels set in Kansas–The Virgin of Small Plains and The Scent of Rain and Lightning; I cannot recommend them enough. One cannot talk about Kansas books, either, without mentioning Truman Capote’s “true crime novel” In Cold Blood, which I like to reread every now and then.

There’s just something noir about Kansas; I don’t know how to describe it, or why it feels that way to me; but there’s just something about the wide open spaces and the wind, that Peyton Place-like feel to the small cities…Emporia (the county seat; we lived about eight miles out of town in an even smaller town called Americus) even had its own full blown scandal where a minister and the church secretary had an affair and murdered their spouses; it was even made into a two-part mini-series filmed on location in Emporia starring Jobeth Williams as the femme fatale. Those small towns, scattered all over the northern part of Lyon County, once thriving and bustling but now barely hand on when I lived there…the abandoned schools, still standing (they’d all been consolidated into one high school in the 1950’s) in the emptying little towns…our consolidated high school, out in the middle of the country with the football field backing up to a pasture; and the explosive boredom for teenagers. I always turn back to Kansas somehow, whenever I am thinking creatively or wanting to write a new short story–so much material, really. Emporia even had a cult; the old Presbyterian College of Emporia had gone bankrupt sometime in the early 1970’s and The Way International had bought the campus, turning it into The Way College of Emporia and I have to tell you, those kids from The Way College were terrifying–and there were lots of stories and urban legends about what went on there on that campus; how much was true I’ll probably never know, but I do know they used to have armed security guards patrolling the edge of campus, and every teenager knew not to ever get cornered anywhere with no possible escape by two or more of those kids….they always traveled in groups, never less than two and rarely more than six, but always in multiples of two. They always looked very clean cut, but you knew them by the nametags they were required to wear, their empty glassy eyes, and the big smiles on their faces.

There’s also the story of the bloody Benders, serial killers who operated an inn and murdered their guests in the nineteenth century before disappearing; I’m sure every nook and cranny of Kansas has some kind of horrible tale of murder hidden away.

And about three or four miles from our high school–you had to turn right when you reached the state road from Americus to get there; if you turned left towards Council Grove you’d pass this place: an abandoned nuclear missile base, that is still there. We used to go there sometimes for kicks–opening the door and listening to the strange sounds from deep inside and water dripping. I had plenty of nightmares about that missile base.

But the only other gay novelist I know from Kansas is Scott Heim (or at least the only one I know of who sometimes writes about Kansas). I read his debut novel Mysterious Skin sometime in the mid to late 1990’s, and was blown away by it (the film is also quite good). Mysterious Skin is set in Kansas, of course, and while it is a literary novel, and a quite good one, for me there were some elements of noir to the story; I have moved it to the The Reread Project pile and hope to get to it again relatively soon, so i can discuss it with more credibility and authority. I’ve not had the opportunity to read his other two novels, In Awe and We Disappear, but I’m adding them to the “need to get a copy” list.

Over this past weekend I read a short story Scott wrote for Amazon; part of something called The Disorder Collection, along with stories from several other authors. You can buy “Loam” here; it’s well worth the ninety-nine cents.

We agreed to share the driving. The early-morning flights had left us feeling run-down, but my sisters said my eyes looked the least bleary, so I should drive first. The clouds had gone gray; it had started to rain. But we could take our time. The afternoon we’d been dreading lay before us in hot, wet highways flanked by sorghum and corn and glistening shocks of wheat. It was late summer, already harvest season, and the fields shuddered in the wind, the grains full and heavy as though fed with blood.

At the rental counter, a cheery, silver-haired clerk had offered us a white sedan, but Louise had disapproved. “A simple compact is fine,” she said, “and no extra options. Just make sure it’s as black as possible. Is ‘funeral black’ a color?” She’d glanced across the desk to Miriam and me, urging us to smile. No one had smiled since we’d met in the arrival lobby with hesitant hugs.

The clerk didn’t seem to grasp Louise’s reference, but when she collected our licenses, she was attentive enough to catch our dates of birth. She turned and yelled, “Girls, come look–triplets!”

It had been years since we’d been subjected to this kind of foolishness. We watched as her pair of coworkers stood from their desks and approached the counter. I could guess what was coming next: we didn’t look anything alike; we had varying shades of brown and blond hair; even our bodies and the ways we dressed, so different. Louise stopped their small talk before it could start, outstretching her hand to silence the room. “Look, our father just died, okay? Let’s sign what we need to sign and get this over with.”

One of the things I love about Heim’s work–and having only read one novel over twenty years ago and now this short story–is that he often writes about the aftereffects, and the aftermath, of traumas and how the victims deal and cope. This is something that interests me; I often think and wonder about how people who’ve dealt with something–my husband is a serial sex offender; my father murdered my mother, my grandfather was a serial killer–they had no control over cope and go on with their lives; I’m actually writing a story dealing with that sort of thing right now (one of the many stories I have in some sort of progress right now; it’s called “He Didn’t Kill Her”), and also those who were directly victimized–how do they deal? How do they cope? How do they go on with their lives after something so traumatic happens to them?

This is why this century’s reboots and sequels to Halloween interest me, because they show how Laurie Strode, years later, was psychologically damaged and who she became; one of the things I loved about the Scream films is they showed how everything that has happened to her has turned Sydney into a different person from who she imagined she’d be before the murders started.

Heim doesn’t write about the peripherally damaged; he writes about those who actually were damaged first-hand. In “Loam”, his triplets are clearly damaged by something that happened to them when they were children; they are returning to bury their father and clearly have not been back to Kansas in years. It isn’t clear what happened to them–it may have just been bad parenting in the beginning–and it isn’t until they stop at a second-hand store (what we used to call “junk shops” when I was a kid) and find some strange and mysterious pictures of their first grade classmates on a table that the memories of the past–and what they went through–begin to come to the fore.

I do wish Scott Heim would write more. This story, sad and dark and mysterious, is everything I love to read.

This: The afternoon we’d been dreading lay before us in hot, wet highways flanked by sorghum and corn and glistening shocks of wheat. It was late summer, already harvest season, and the fields shuddered in the wind, the grains full and heavy as though fed with blood–I wish I’d written that.

Buy it or borrow it if you have Amazon Prime. It’s very well worth the time.

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Loverboy

The ballet last night was exquisite.

I’ve seen ballets–or parts of them–on television or Youtube; and I remember, as a child, being taken to see The Nutcracker (isn’t everyone dragged to that as a child?), which I hated (interestingly enough, many things that most children love are things that I didn’t; The Nutcracker is one; The Wizard of Oz another). But as lovely and awe-inspiring as seeing ballets on Youtube or on television can be, there is nothing like being in an auditorium and watching one being performed live on the stage in front of you. I liken it to the difference between watching figure skating on television and then watching it in person; it’s very different, and you never watch it on television in quite the same way again. Romeo and Juliet is, of course, an ubiquitous story; everyone knows it, to the point that it has become almost trite and hackneyed; it’s been adapted for everything imaginable–opera, ballet, film, and of course West Side Story–but, at its heart, it is still a beautiful and sad story.

The opening sequence of the ballet reminded me so much of the opening of West Side Story that I couldn’t help wonder how much the ballet influenced the musical’s choreography, or vice versa.

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I read Romeo and Juliet when I was a sophomore in high school. I’d taken a class called Dramatic Literature; a class in which we read plays. Romeo and Juliet was paired with West Side Story (it’s also the class where I first read Tennessee Williams; A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, to be exact); we even watched the films (the version of Romeo and Juliet was the 1968 Franco Zeffirelli production, with Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey with the gorgeous score by Michel Legrand). Shakespeare’s language was, to me at fourteen, a mysterious puzzle I couldn’t unlock; archaic references I didn’t understand written in verse, yet somehow beautiful in how the words were put together. At the time, I didn’t understand how two families could feud so bitterly and violently in an Italian city during the Renaissance; of course, now that I’ve read so many Italian histories (I am still greatly enjoying The Black Prince of Florence), I am more than a little surprised that the feud between Capulet and Montague was so bloodless (see the Pazzi-Medici feud, circa fifteen century).

Yet, despite the overwhelming familiarity with the story, it was impossible not to be drawn into last night’s version of it; despite there being no dialogue, no words. The entire story was, as is typical with the ballet, acted out without words and through dance. The choreographer’s choices in telling the story were quite interesting; the stage setting was incredibly minimalist, with emotions and passions being evoked through the movement of the two curved walls that served as set pieces; the long rising ramp that served as not a way to exit the stage but as Juliet’s fabled balcony; and the use of costume and lighting.

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The friar was used as a connective device throughout each scene; he was, if anything, the true star of the show, and its emotional heart. The dancer who played the role was magnificent. The ballet was a thing of beauty; I couldn’t stop marveling at how fantastic the dancers were, the exceptional shapes and lines they could form with their bodies, the almost super-human stretches and leaps and twirls and spins, the intimacy of their lifts and how they could mold their bodies around one another’s.

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It was also my first time inside the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts since Katrina; ironically, it was also the first time the Ballet des Monte-Carlo performed there since 2005. Both the outgoing and incoming mayor were there; the Honorary Consul for Monaco, and the ambassador from Monaco were all introduced and thanked from the stage.

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And yet, as a crime writer, and someone with a vested interest in group dynamics and politics, who has viewed documentaries about ballet companies, with a knowledge of human nature and interaction,I couldn’t help wondering, as the company took its well-deserved bows to a long standing ovation last night,  what turmoils and temperaments boiled beneath the surface of the linked hands and bowing bodies; what slights and grudges boiled behind the smiling faces; which members of the company were friends and which were enemies; who were lovers and friends and who were enemies and rivals, who was gay and who was straight.

I definitely want to write a ballet noir.

And here are two short stories, for the continuation of the Short Story Project.

First up is “Split Second” by Daphne du Maurier,  from the New York Review of Books collection of Don’t Look Now and Other Stories:

Mrs. Ellis was methodical and tidy. Unanswered letters, unpaid bills, the litter and rummage of a slovenly writing-desk were things she abhorred. Today, more than usual, she was in what her late husband used to call her “clearing” mood. She had wakened to this mood; it remained with her throughout the morning. Besides, it was the first of the month, and as she ripped off the page of her daily calendar and saw the bright clean 1 staring at her, it seemed to symbolize a new start tom her day.

The hours ahead of her must somehow seem untarnished like the date; she must let nothing slide.

“Split Second” is an exceptional exercise in character. Du Maurier thoroughly examines and exposes Mrs. Ellis’ character from beginning to end, and while she doesn’t go into a great amount of detail, it isn’t hard to figure out exactly whom she is from what we are told as readers. She’s a widow and her entire world revolves around her daughter, who is off at school; she decides, after a thorough cleaning of her home to go for a walk and is almost run down by the laundry truck as she walks back home. But when she gets back to her house, things are different. It is her house, but it’s no longer the house she left behind; other people are living there, her neighbors are gone–the entire world has changed and shifted as she walked home. It’s a horrifying story, even as the reader begins to glean what has actually happened long before Mrs. Ellis does; not that she ever does, even by the end of the story, and that is part of what makes it so sad, so effective, so powerful; no one has ever quite captured that elegant, melancholy sadness the way du Maurier does.

I then moved on to “The Picture of the Lonely Diner” by Lee Child,  from the Mystery Writers of America anthology, Manhattan Mayhem:

Jack Reacher got out of the R train at Twenty-Third Street and found the nearest stairwell blocked off with plastic police tape. It was striped blue and white, tied between one handrail and the other, and it was moving in the subway wind. It said: POLICE DO NOT ENTER. Which, technically, Reacher didn’t want to do anyway. He wanted to exit. Although to exit, he would need to enter the stairwell. Which was a linguistic complexity. In which context, he sympathized with the cops. They didn’t have different kinds of tape for different situations. POLICE DO NOT ENTER IN ORDER TO EXIT was not in their inventory.

Lee Child is one of the most successful writers in our genre today; everything he publishes is a New York Times best seller, and his character, Jack Reacher, is one of those ubiquitous characters that will go down in the history of the genre, like Poirot, James Bond, and Kinsey Millhone. I am years behind on Lee’s novels; but if you’ve not read Lee Child, you simply must read The Killing Floor, the first Reacher novel. It is quite superb. This story isn’t Child at his best, but Reacher the character is at his best at novel-length, with the labyrinthian plots Child somehow concocts and manages to keep track of (one of my favorite fanboy moments was having lunch with him and Alafair Burke at the Green Goddess here in New Orleans several years ago; while I just sat there wide-eyed and listened to the two of them talk about writing and publishing, praying that I didn’t have sauce running down my chin), but this story does evoke the melancholy that Child evokes in his novels; the inevitability of fate and the powerlessness of humans to counteract it once the gears are moving. I do recommend the story; there is some amazing imagery in it as well.

And on that note, I am back to the spice mines. There are bed linens to launder, and short stories to edit, and a chapter to write; it is rainy and gloomy outside my windows this morning but I am well-rested and ready to work.

Or maybe it’s just the caffeine kicking in. Who knows?