Short Stories 365/173

“Faithful” by Michael Thomas Ford from Men of the Mean Streets (Bold Strokes Books, 2011). Edited by Greg Herren and J.M. Redmann.

I’ve heard it said that prior to the start of a chess tournament, while waiting in the green room, Bobby Fischer became irate with his fellow competitors because they were passing the time chatting about mundane things. The way I heard the story he seethed for awhile before leaping to his feet, shouting, “What does any of that have to do with CHESS?”

I like that story because I tend to be a little bit like that, which is to say obsessive. While reading this story I kept hearing my inner voice growing more and more impatient, threatening to jump up screaming. That’s because the tale is told from the perspective of the romantic interest of a mafia hit man. What’s wrong with that, you ask? Well, she’s his wife.

I actually, honestly, stopped and checked the cover of the book. Surely, this wasn’t another instance like I experienced with “Handsome Devil: Stories of Sin and Seduction” (Prime Books, 2013) where the stories turned out to be mainly straight ones. I mean, I’d read the introduction by editor Greg Herren, which mentioned that originally the project was planned as a single anthology, but because so much great work was received they decided to do two volumes, and divided it up into “Men of the Mean Streets” and “Women of the Mean Streets”.

Sure enough, when I looked the subtitle was there: Gay Noir. So I wasn’t crazy, at least not in that regard. Which brought me to: What does this have to do with chess?!

I kept reading. Wise guy Jake Anthony has come home from his latest hit, but instead of making love to his wife like a raging bull, as he normally does after a job, he sits on the edge of their bed shaking like a leaf. He tells her it went wrong, they killed someone they shouldn’t have, and there is going to be hell to pay. Probably, he’s going to die. But first he has to make an appearance at the compound his victim called home. Oddly, his wife’s presence has also been requested. The two agree that in these sorts of cases, there’s no point in running.

I waited to see what the twist was going to be. Obviously, Jake was hiding a secret from his wife, some alliance he’d made that she didn’t see coming because of his ardor in their bedroom. Right?

There is a twist, and the story is certainly well written, but it doesn’t have as much to do with “chess” as I would have liked. (Partly that’s because this piece is gay noir erotica, and showing this moment got the author the most, ahem, bang for his buck.) Personally, I think I would’ve enjoyed it more if the story had started either at a point much earlier, or else after the twist, if it showed the reason why things happened the way they did, and the consequences, if there are any. But that’s just me. As I’ve said before in these reviews, your mileage may vary.

Short Stories 365/172

“Mouse” by Jeffrey Round from Men of the Mean Streets (Bold Strokes Books). Edited by Greg Herren and J.M. Redmann.

My first impression of this story was that it wasn’t particularly noir. Upon reading it a second time, however, I was able to see that I was being thrown off by the contemporary setting and straightforward storytelling. Being introduced to all the characters and taking the big picture into consideration kept me from seeing it clearly that first time. In retrospect I believe it fits into the noir genre nicely.

Although the title of the piece is taken from the nickname of the character Jon, it’s actually written from the point of view of his older brother Colin, a cynical, brooding man who pretends to be otherwise. Colin’s wife has just said she wants a divorce, and more than anything he feels a sense of relief at the prospect of no longer needing to keep up pretenses. Colin has a demon he’s kept at bay for years. As he interacts with Jon, now a hopeless I. V. drug addict, we come to find out how Colin’s long ago actions turned a once happy child into a man bent on numbing his emotional pain, at any cost.

Short Stories 365/171

“Patience, Colorado” by Rob Byrnes from Men of the Mean Streets (Bold Strokes Books). Edited by Greg Herren and J.M. Redmann.

In “Carver Comes Home” the author dialed his trademark humor way back. Here it’s switched off. I thought I wouldn’t like that, but on the contrary, I was riveted. As the events of the plot unfolded I was struck by how much the story felt like a classic film. It might easily be a play, also, because it has a limited number of locales and a small cast of characters. There’s the run down motel, the bowling alley, the train crossing and the culvert that runs alongside it. There’s the main character, Conor Laughlin, who takes a wrong turn and ends up in Patience, Colorado in the middle of the night. There’s Tay, short for Taylor, who tends bar at the bowling alley across the railroad tracks. There’s Tay’s boss, Mr. Thursby, who owns the bowling alley, and a handful of incidental characters: the motel clerk, some other customers at the bowling alley, the town mechanic, a police officer. There’s the sexual tension that erupts between Conor and Tay in this most inhospitable place. But the most important element of the story, by far, is the noose the author slowly tightens around his characters as the plot unfolds.

Short Stories 365/170

“Keeping the Faith” by ‘Nathan Burgoine from Men of the Mean Streets (Bold Strokes Books, 2011). Edited by Greg Herren and J.M. Redmann.

When I first heard that ‘Nathan had a story in this anthology I was excited, because I love his work, but also slightly worried. His stories (as far as I have found, anyway) have a common theme that I didn’t think could be incorporated successfully into noir. I was fearful he would abandon that aspect of his storytelling, and I wasn’t sure what the result would be. It turns out I was wrong. He managed to craft a very ‘Nathan-like story that’s also perfectly noir.

The main character is a private eye hired to retrieve property stolen from a priest. He turns up late one night and gets the cold shoulder from the priest’s secretary. While he’s standing in the street, waiting to be granted admittance, he spies someone no one else sees. They can’t see them, because the person in question is a ghost. Right there, you know where you are and that it’s going to be good, and also unlike anything you’ve read before.

What I really, really like about the author’s world building is that being aware of the existence of the supernatural never benefits his main characters very much. It actually tends to hinder them, by rendering them outsiders. Being able to see the ghost gives this main character one small clue to solve the larger puzzle, but he gets small clues from any number of sources. It’s still up to him to put them all together and figure out what’s really going on. There’s no deus ex machina here.

Short Stories 365/169

“A Love Story” by Evan Mora from Best Lesbian Romance 2012 (Cleis Press). Edited by Radclyffe.

This is a cute way to end the anthology. The main character and her lover are sitting under a tree in the park enjoying a beautiful day together. The lover asks to be told a story, and the main character obliges, launching into the fantastical tale of how she met the great love of her life, a story that, we come to realize, has many of the actual details of their meeting and subsequent relationship woven into it. It’s the story of how the main character fell for the lover, only embellished. At the end, as they pack up and head home, the lover makes a suggestion about the flavor the story should take during the next evening’s telling, and you get a sense of the timelessness of this union. There’s the feeling that these two characters will continue to cherish the love they share, and renew it nightly through storytelling, for ever after.

Short Stories 365/168

“House of Memories” by D. Jackon Leigh from Best Lesbian Romance 2012 (Cleis Press). Edited by Radclyffe.

This story really spoke to me, possibly becausd several friends I follow on the internet are in the process of moving, and right now new neighbors are moving in to the house next door to ours. Also because the last five years have seen a lot of upheaval in our lives and the lives of friends and relatives. Loss of jobs, changes of careers, and the relocation to new cities. So yeah, it spoke to me.

When the story starts the unnamed narrator is loading out the last few boxes containing her belongings and the belongings of her lover, who is rushing out the door of their apartment, apparently to meet the cable guy over at the new place. She pauses in the kitchen and looks around, struck by memories from various stages of their relationship. She’s wistful but not melancholy, and it’s not hard to fathom why: this place was her partner’s before they met; the new place will be theirs, and that’s a cheerful, optimistic note on which to end the story.

Short Stories 365/167

“The Quickening” by Siobhan Colman from Best Lesbian Romance 2012 (Cleis Press). Edited by Radclyffe.

Here we have historical erotica. It’s another first for the collection, and a refreshing change. It’s pure fantasy, of course. Eighteen year old Mary endeavors to assist her mistress in getting ready for bed, as she has done for various employers every night for the past three years. This mistress is different. She reads aloud while Mary brushes her hair. She helps her learn her letters, and just generally treats her like a human being, not property. Much to her surprise, Mary’s mistress next invites her to bed. Or not invites, so much as insists they switch places. She says she will be the servant, and Mary will be the mistress, not just for one night, but for always. See? Fantasy. But fun nonetheless.