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Magic Man

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Saturday, and lots of spice to mine.

But I can get it done, I know I can, and I am going to focus and even close my web browser after posting this. See, I mean business. Heavy heaving sigh. I stopped at the grocery store on the way home yesterday, so I wouldn’t have to go today, and so I don’t have to leave the house all weekend. I should go to the gym—my doctor has told me I need to work out more, and watch what I eat, the hateful BITCH—but I really want to work on the apartment. It’s under construction again, as I mentioned the other day, but that doesn’t mean I can’t clean around it, and there’s always laundry to do. I find cleaning a lovely, mind-clearing distraction from writing. The two kind of go hand-in-hand for me. And I always like to quote Agatha Christie: “My house is never so clean as when I am writing.”

I can’t remember why I wanted to do a collection of crime short stories as an editor, but when I suggested it to my publisher, they not only wanted me to do one, they wanted me to partner with my old friend/partner in crime J. M. Redmann to do a volume for guys and a volume for girls. And thus Men/Women of the Mean Streets were born; and much fun was had by all. Well, it was a lot of work, but we had a good time doing it and the two books turned out really well. I included a story of my own in the Men volume; “Spin Cycle.”

“Spin Cycle” was actually written originally as a one-act, twenty minute radio play for Southern Rep, working with WWNO; in a throw-back to the wonderful old radio thrillers before television. When I was asked—at the very last minute, as the person originally asked had to bail out—I said yes (the money was great) but had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I’d never written a play before, let alone one for radio, and my fiction is, at the very least, highly visual. Writing something that had no setting or scene description, and wasn’t even actually meant to be seen was way out of my comfort zone. I also had no idea how to time such a thing; and it needed to be twenty minutes. I was told one page equaled one minute, and that was what I worked with. Then, when I had twenty pages, I read it out loud—and was horrified to see, that even reading really fast, I went well over twenty minutes—so things had to be cut. A lot had to be cut. But I was very pleased with how it turned out, and then it was staged and recorded live in front of an audience, which was incredibly nerve-wracking, yet went well. So, when we were doing Men of the Mean Streets, I was also doing a lot of editing as well as working on another novel or two of my own in addition to the day job, and finally I realized I was running out of time to write something original; so I decided to adapt “Spin Cycle” into a short story.

My alarm woke me from the dreamless sleep of the truly content.

I smacked my hand down on it—it was a reflex. I opened my eyes and sat up in my bed. I could smell brewing coffee from downstairs. I yawned and stretched—I couldn’t remember the last time I’d slept so deeply, so peacefully. I reached for my glasses from the little table next to the bed and slipped them on. Everything swam into focus, and my heart started sinking the way it did every morning when I started coming to full consciousness.

Still in the goddamned carriage house, I thought, getting out of bed with a moan, and no commutation of the sentence in sight. Stupid fucking Katrina.

But there was silence outside, other than birds chirping in the crepe myrtles.

No hammering or sawing. No drilling.

I smiled.

I slipped on the rubber-soled shoes I had to wear upstairs. I avoided the carpet nails jutting up from the wooden floor on my way to the bathroom. The floor slanted at about a thirty-degree angle to the left. It used to disorient me but I’d gotten used to it in the nine months I’d been sentenced to live in this pit. I looked at the bags under my eyes while brushing my teeth and washing my face. No need to shave, I decided. I wasn’t going anywhere or seeing anyone today.

In fact, I’d finished a job and didn’t have to start the next for a few days.

I was at loose ends.

I pulled on purple LSU sweatpants and a matching hooded sweatshirt before heading downstairs to get some coffee.

I was on my second cup, surveying the stacks of boxes piled in practically every available space. It was the same routine every morning. Drink some coffee, look around and try to figure out if there were some way to make this fucking place more comfortable, more livable. I had yet to figure out a way, without renting a storage space and getting everything out.

And every morning I came to the conclusion there wasn’t a way.

I closed my eyes, and took deep, calming breaths.

Maybe I should just rent the storage unit and be done with it, I said to myself. You don’t know how long you’re going to be stuck in here before the work on the house is done. Imagine not having all these towering stacks of boxes collecting dust in here. Imagine not having this soul-deadening reminder everywhere you look—

A knock on the front door jolted me back into the present. I crossed the room and opened the door. “Yes?”

The tall black woman in a gray business suit standing there flashed a badge at me. “I'm Venus Casanova with the NOPD, I’m sorry to disturb you, sir. I was wondering if I could talk to you for a few moments?”

"Spin Cycle" was inspired by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and how everyone who needed work on their houses done--from completely rebuilding them to simply just having some things repaired--were completely at the mercy of contractors, and how incredibly frustrating this could be. I also liked the idea of taking something that was, at best, a minor irritation and showing how that could build into something horrible. I liked how it turned out, but it could have been better.

The two noir anthologies did well enough--awards, reviews, and sales wise--that Bold Strokes wanted us to do horror next, and thus Night Shadows was born (and yes, I am aware of how similar that title is to Shadows of the Night). The story I wrote for Night Shadows, "Crazy in the Night," was another one of those stories I originally wrote in the 1980's. I think Stephen King was the horror writer who advised writing about your fears and your nightmares, and when I originally wrote this story, that's what I did.

Confession: I am afraid of the dark.

I always have been. I can remember when I was a kid and we'd be visiting my grandmother in Alabama, how dark it would be once the lights were out, how the dark seemed to press against the window screens when the lights were on, and the noises out there in the woods...well, they could have been anything. Even now, if Paul's not home, I don't turn out all the lights. I always leave one on downstairs and I always leave one of the bathroom lights on upstairs. I wouldn't say I am so much scared of the dark now as it makes me uncomfortable, but the dark and I do not have a close relationship. And that's the root of this story; and in it's original iteration, the opening line was Danny was afraid of the dark. The point of the story was always that the main character was moving into a new apartment, involved with a guy who not only wouldn't commit but would never sleep over at Danny's place--and the new place, well, there was something wrong with it.

Danny probably would have never moved from his apartment on Constantinople Street-- if it hadn’t been for that damned thunderstorm.

It wasn’t that it was such a great place—it was far too expensive for as small as it was, frankly, and he was well aware of that. But rents had gone through the roof after Katrina, and he needed a place to live. He could afford the rent, of course, that wasn’t the problem with it. He just felt like he was being gouged every month when he wrote the check to his landlady, whom he called ‘that greedy bitch’ to his co-workers and friends so often that no explanation was necessary. But he hated the hassle of moving—of getting services turned off and on, of packing and unpacking—and he hated the search for a new place most of all. So, every month on the first he simply gritted his teeth, wrote the check, and gave it to that greedy bitch with a phony smile plastered on his face.

The forecast that day had been for rain, but between May and November the forecast every day was ‘hot, humid, chance of rain,’ but he took an umbrella with him when he left for work at the Monteleone Hotel that particular morning. He was so busy once he got to his office that he didn’t know it turned dark as night outside when the rain started around one in the afternoon. The loud crack of thunder did startle him, breaking through the intense level of concentration he’d focused on the conference contract he was putting together, trying to remember things from the phone conversation with the conference organizer and swearing at himself for not writing every request she’d made down.

He walked out to the hotel lobby and saw Royal Street filling with water, and the doorman had come inside. At least it’s not a tropical storm, he thought with a sigh of relief as he headed back to his office, because that would suck.

But the storm did manage to dump twelve inches of rain on New Orleans in slightly less than two hours, despite not being a tropical storm. That would be problematic in any city, but for New Orleans, built on a swamp below sea level and surrounded by water on every side, it was catastrophic. Despite the efforts of one of the best pumping systems in the world, the streets flooded. The residents of the city could only watch in helpless horror as the dirty brown rain water rose and rose. Cars attempting to make it through the bayous the streets quickly became were inundated with water and engines stalled. Lightning knocked out power in most of the Uptown part of the city, and the power flickered a few times at the Monteleone.

Around three in the afternoon the storm passed and the sun came back out as though nothing had ever happened. In less than half an hour, the pumping system kicked into high gear and the dirty water disappeared. The only evidence that it had ever been there were the stalled cars, the mud and dirt and debris on the sidewalks and in the gutters, and the unlucky ones in low-lying houses pushing dirty water out of their houses with mops.

As Danny drove home from work that night, past dead cars pushed out of the streets up into parks and neutral grounds, his relief that his small overpriced apartment was on the second floor grew—until he turned down Constantinople Street and saw the enormous live oak that had crashed into the front of the building.

He parked, and stared in horror. He could see clearly into his apartment from where he was standing. His hands shaking, he fished his cell phone out of his pants pocket and called his boyfriend. Matthew came right over, and spent a few hours with him in the wreckage, finding what was and wasn’t ruined—almost everything was.

Finally, Matthew shook his head as the light faded and said, “Come on, babe, let’s go over to my place. You can stay with me for now.”

For now.

Too emotional and upset to say anything else, Danny just nodded.

But it rankled, as it always did.

They’d been seeing each other exclusively for just over a year—but God forbid Matthew even just consider the frightening possibility of asking his newly homeless boyfriend to move in with him.

The book was a Lambda finalist, and also a Shirley Jackson award finalist. Two stories--Lee Thomas' and Victoria Brownworth's--made Ellen Datlow Honorable Mention list for Best Horror of the Year.

It was absolutely lovely.

And now I have spice to mine.

Here's today's hottie:

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