Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Maturity and M/M Romance, Part II

Let's jump right in . . .

Lynn Lorenz

In my Hearts of New Orleans series I have a character, Sebastian LaGrange. He’s an gay man in his seventies who becomes a mentor and dear friend to two younger gay men, Lane and Matt (from Pinky Swear). Sebastian appears in the next book with the boys, Pioneers, where Matt is making a documentary about gay life in New Orleans by interviewing Sebastian.

At the end of that story, I left Sebastian accepting a date with a man he meets at a fast food restaurant, Raymond Chou, an Asian man who grew up in France. My readers begged me to continue their story. It seemed Sebastian had wormed his way into their hearts and they wanted him to have his HEA.

So, in C’est La Vie, I gave Sebastian his HEA in what I hope was a very sweet, poignant story. Now this involved a man, Raymond, who was very much sexually active in his seventies, and he wants Sebastian. Yes, that way.  But Sebastian goes through all sorts of worries about “doing” it, as would any man who’d been “out of action” for quite a while. Will he? Can he? If he can’t, will that be the end of Raymond? What will Raymond think of his seventy year old body?

When it came to the sex scenes, they had to match the tone of the book, and the reality of the men involved. There were no wild gyrations or gymnastics, it was gentle, sweet, and loving. They took their time getting to the actual “penetration” – Sebastian was the bottom – and Raymond handled him with consideration and love, but we did see the entire thing. No closed doors. No fade to black. No shame.

The story is romantic, sweet, and gives those who read it hope that love can come to us, no matter what the age.

Reelin’ In The Years

I admit, by some standards, (though not my own) I’m old. Too old to be writing erotic romance. And I freely admit, there are some drawbacks to my age. I don’t do clubs, I’m not out at bars staying on top the latest slang and fashion. But then, I never did that sort of thing.

That leads to the question: what does the older author have to offer the reader? Well, experience, and not just of the sexual variety. I’ve loved and lost. I’ve experienced grief and pain that was so deep it was bewildering. I’ve had success and failure. I’ve had good sex, bad sex and no sex at all.  I’ve seen troubled marriages transformed into deep enduring relationships, defying all the romance tropes around.  I’ve seen unlikely pairings that flourished. This experience encourages me to think outside the box in my writing. I just wrote the ultimate May/December pairing: Travis is 25, his lover Dylan is 900…give or take a decade or two.

The older writer has the mileage to look back and see that sometimes life is more varied and complex than fiction. An older author can often channel emotion and experience into a character, giving him depth and unexpected layers.

And characters…what’s better than a forty-something cowboy coming out of the closet to find passion and love with an over-the-hill boy toy? Or a woman  discovering her inner kink after her kids are grown? I see possibilities now that never occurred to me 25 years ago.

I’ve found that I can shock and excite people half my age. How cool is that?

Many of my characters are in their late twenties or early thirties because that’s a crucial time, I believe, in finding love and settling down. While I have written about older guys  I think there has to be a compelling reason why this guy is on the market at this stage of his life. Is he a widower? Coming out late in life? Rowan in The Russian Boy is in his early fifties and has, like many men of his generation, been married to a woman and had children. He’s had to get over the baggage of that broken relationship before he’s ready to start a new one.

Available here.
When I write about older guys I try to emphasize those features that are attractive on a man who’s no longer in his youthful prime. I’ve written sex scenes with older men, in The Russian Boy, where Rowan is self-conscious about having sex with a man twenty years younger—but Taylor loves things about Rowan, such as his confidence and wisdom, as well as his sexiness, that have only improved with age. In my short story, “Heat Lightning,” appearing this fall in the Cleis anthology Sexy Sailors, both the protagonists are over fifty, and the things they find attractive about each other are age-appropriate—liking the gray pubic hairs, the bit of extra at the waist, and so on.

My author photo is about seven years old but I’m not changing it for a while at least—it was too expensive! I don’t think my being 55 has any impact on what readers think of my books. Many of my biggest fans are men of my age or older who relate to the emotional struggles I write about.

I’d be happy to see more M/M romance about older men. I think it’s a real challenge to bring together two guys who have already had their characters set through the years, and see how they can adapt to each other.

My first novel, Until Thanksgiving (to be released in December or January by Dreamspinner Press), revolves around 39 year-old Josh Freeman. After he and his lover of 17 years part ways, Josh is certain that his life is over and he’ll never find love again. I wrote the story because at 39, that’s how I felt after my 12-year relationship had ended. No, he’s not over 50. But the fact that Josh feels the way he does (and the way I did) at what I now perceive to be the prime of life was something I wanted to write about.

Now I’m 54, and believe it or not, recently single after the end of another 12-year relationship. Again, I have a sense that my chances of finding love are slim to none. The difference is that this time around, the thought doesn’t frighten me.

So what does any of this have to do with m/m romance novels featuring characters over 50? I think guys my age don’t turn up in romance novels because at my age, the nature of romance has mellowed to such an extent that it would make for an awfully boring read. Young love is a roller coaster ride with dizzying highs and gut wrenching lows. Sorry. I don’t do roller coasters any more. Once upon a time, I loved the excitement. These days, I prefer a more even keel and run like the wind from that kind of drama.

I don’t think gay men are any more beauty-conscious than straight women—not when it comes to fictional men. Gorgeous heroes are the gold standard in straight romance, too. And if gay men find youth appealing, in characters or writers, well, so do straight folk of both genders. The only reason I find age an issue at all is my own fear that my work will be judged based on something other than its merits. I’m a perfectly nice woman of a certain age—Mom’s age!  I have three sons older than most of my characters.

Let me say right here I don’t know if my age would be an issue with readers. I like to think not, that the story is what matters. My stories don’t focus only on younger characters. Older characters get to have sex in my stories, too, as often as they care to. My sorcerer Muir is over fifty years old, though I don’t dwell on his age. His scars get more attention. And the sex is explicit.

Though I love writing about young men coming of age through adventure, I also love watching men who have a few life lessons under their belt finding that special someone who appreciates them for who they are and finds them sexy. In fact, in contemporary stories, I prefer older protagonists. I know firsthand that the sex drive doesn’t shrivel up and die for a person over fifty. I’m more interested in sex now than I ever was!

Twitter: @tali_spencer

This world is made up of people of all ages, races, beliefs, cultures and sexual orientations. As such, it’s my sense that no matter what you write, you’ll find some readers. Maybe not as many as you’d like, but I think there’s certainly room for anything and everything including older heroes.

In romance fiction there will be readers who don’t like very young characters or very old ones. The majority of what’s selling appears to be books with characters in their 20’s and 30’s. That doesn’t mean that books with older characters don’t sell. I know for a fact that some do.

I did a cover for Z.A. Maxfield’s Family Unit, a book featuring a hero who is a grandfather. That book sells phenomenally well. Readers don’t care how old Richard is. They identify with him and they love him. And I think in M/M romance, especially with female readers, they are more accepting of older heroes as long as they are written well and portrayed as sexy regardless of their age. Maybe gay men want books about young, hot, perfect guys, but I don’t know for sure. Certainly, the gay men who have critiqued my books aren’t like that and I’m not an author who writes what I think will sell. I write what I need to write. I write the story that thunders inside me, insisting on having its day on paper.

If I came up with a plot bunny involving a character over 50, I’d go with it if it’s one of those stories I just have to write. And when I write paranormals, I have characters who are immortal so they are more than 50 and look younger. They don’t always act younger and they aren’t always perfect. In fact, I live to write flawed characters regardless of their age.

At the age of 51 I’ve learned not to sweat the stuff I can’t change. I can’t stop my body from aging even if my brain doesn’t think it’s aged.  I don’t lie about my age or worry that people won’t like what I write. I am who I am. When readers ask me personal questions, I probably tell them far more truth than they want to know!

Facebook (and here)

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

A note from the hostess (or is that not a word anymore because it's politically incorrect?) I'm deeply grateful to all these fine writers for offering not only their opinions but candid glimpses into their lives. They've made it pretty damned obvious that regardless of one's age, proud self-acceptance, even with a dash of defiance, are good things when combined with intellect and sensitivity.

 (This picture is about as old as Neil's but cost a lot less, thanks to an outdated Polaroid camera. My reaction to it? First, where'd those black dots come from, and how dare they make it look like I'm hiding a guinea pig under my golden tresses? Second, how could I kiss a man with a 'do like that? (Sorry, JLA. At least your hair has grown out . . . what's left of it, anyway. :))

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Maturity and M/M Romance, Part I

Victor J. Banis,
with only a fraction of his output.

I asked the esteemed gentleman above as well as other writers for their opinions on older authors of, and characters in, m/m romance fiction. Is there an unspoken prejudice against one or the other or both? Are female authors more sensitive to the issue of age? My September 10 post will give you more specifics on what I was angling for, but I pretty much let my guests decide how they wanted to approach the topic. Here's what they had to say. (And I apologize for any wonky formatting. Blogger does not like absorbing various blocks of text that aren't all the same, and I'm afraid I don't have the tech skills to correct that!)

I think the reason we have youthful heroes in romances is one simple factor—most people don't want to read about someone, of a similar age to their parents, having sex? Hence, we have young, super attractive men in every romance novel. I do like to read about men with a bit of snow on the roof as well.

As a writer, I tend to keep my age to myself because I don't believe it makes any difference to the reader, or it shouldn't. For me, the age of an author makes no difference, so that translates to the way I handle the revelation. I'm not sure how I'd lose credibility as a writer if someone knew my age. To me, logic tells me the opposite. More experience, etc.

I've written explicit sex scenes featuring men over forty and will continue to push that dynamic. I write for Boxer Falls, the Gaytime Drama, and my favorite characters to write for are all over 50 or nearing it. There is a maturity and less superficiality with men that age. They aren't so worried about their hair or their abs, and more concerned with their partner. I find that enormously liberating as a writer.

I suppose I've never made an issue of revealing my age, because of the subculture of youth in ebooks in general. Attending Gay Rom Lit last year showed me that my entire thinking process on the subject was off, because there were more people there who looked like me, than not. I have gray hair and have some pounds on me that I wish weren't there. Those were the two factors I was most concerned about (to the point of coloring my hair before going to New Orleans), not about the number of years I've walked the earth.

As I say to anyone who asks, I've lived every minute of those years. If my age precludes me from writing what I write, I haven't seen that rule written anywhere. As my mama used to say, "I might be old, but I ain't dead yet." The interpretation of old is in the mind of the beholder. I'm not old 'til they carry me away. LOL

My newest release, For Men Like Us, is available at Dreamspinner Press. 

Email address:
Twitter: @britaaddams
Fan Page

Kayelle Allen

When KZ asked me to write about ageism in MM Romance, it took me a few days to decide which angle to use. At first, I considered writing about hiding my own age as a beginning writer to prevent a prejudiced view of a grandmother writing erotic fiction. Instead, I decided to discuss the aging character I know best: Luc Saint-Cyr.

Luc is sixty-three. He's been a character in six books, and the romantic hero of two. In the interest of full disclosure, Luc is also immortal. A created being called a Sempervian, he lives, ages throughout a normal lifespan (about 120 years in his universe), and then dies, only to be "reborn" in his early twenties -- the prime of his life. He's lived over twelve thousand years. If any man could claim he was old, it's Luc.

Unlike his fellow stimulus-craving immortals, Luc prefers calm. That's not to say he doesn't desire sex. His stamina is legendary, even among peers. Sex and the performance of it has never been an issue. What he does suffer from is an opinion that he's too old for a mortal to love. He must hide his real age or face retribution from fellow immortals who move among humans as part of a plot to rule them, but a few select mortals know. This hero's age separates him from others. He must hide not only his age but also his nature. Small wonder when he meets a newly created immortal who falls head over heels in love with him, Luc doubts the younger man knows what he wants. Luc experiences ageism in reverse. He has issues with his lover's youth. He believes that a younger person cannot know his own heart. In the book Surrender Love, Luc must face his own prejudices about age, and overcome them to find love.

Writing a gay hero in his sixties who falls in love with a twenty-something made me look at my own beliefs and ideals. Could I do his younger hero justice? I knew I could show Luc's strength, but could I show his fragility without making him weak? The book won the 2010 EPIC award for Erotic Science Fiction Romance, and has been a best seller. Three years later I still get emails asking when Luc and his young sweetheart will have another book. I think I did him justice. I think readers crave a hero who knows his heart and is willing to embrace and overcome his doubts -- no matter what his age.

Kayelle Allen is an award-winning, multi-published author. Her heroes and heroines include immortal role-playing gamers, warriors who purr, and agents who find the unfindable--or hide it forever. She is known for unstoppable heroes, uncompromising love, and unforgettable passion.

Where to find Kayelle:
Facebook Page

When I Grow Too Old to Dream…

Which is never going to happen. Interesting topic, though, especially for an old fart like myself. I do think ageism is built in but not unavoidable in romance fiction, and especially so in m/m romance. I think in hetero romance, as in movies, it’s okay for the man to be along in years. I don’t know if that is because women really do find older men attractive, or the folks making the movies (mostly older men) like to think that is so. And books today sort of follow the leader. On the other hand, I think Sean Connery is still hot. Ditto Catherine Deneuve, who didn’t really achieve beauty, in my opinion, until she was in her 50s. Likewise Barbara Stanwyck. Am I the only one who thinks Brad Pitt is improving as the years add on?

Sadly, I do think gay men are more youth-and-beauty conscious than straight women. I mean here, in terms of possible partners. Forget The Shadow, the real secret to invisibility is to reach the age of 60 and walk into a gay bar – trust me, no one will see you.
However, I have no reluctance to letting anyone know my age. They can take one glance and see I’m not Tinker Bell, so what difference does a particular number make?

As I writer, I take a certain amount of pride in writing about old men. In Cooper’s Hawk, I never specify the narrator’s age but it’s obvious he’s an old codger. The sex happens in his memories, and though not explicit, it is (I hope) romantic. In The Canals of Mars, one of the two men is in his 60s. (As a funny aside, an editor wrote to tell me I understand the viewpoint of an older man. Ha!) All the way back in the 60s, when I was in my twenties, I was writing about mature men – In Gothic Gaye, one of the C.A.M.P. adventures. I don’t think I ever exactly told the Baron’s age but it’s clear he is no “chicken”:

The carefully combed hair was nearly all gray, with only a few strands of a darker shade scattered here and there. The face smiling back at him… was a mature face… but the high forehead, the rugged cheekbones, the firm set of the chin and mouth, and the shockingly vivid blue eyes, were…ageless.

To tell the truth, age is one of those things I rarely think about. I grew up in a large, multi-generational family in which the generations always mixed. I’m usually flummoxed when someone asks me how old such-and-such is. I never know, and am terrible at trying to guess.

 I’ve known guys who were already cool at age 14, and guys who remained a-holes no matter the years. It’s just a number. It tells you about as much about a person as that number you pull from the machine at the deli counter tells you about the store’s roast beef.  Or maybe I should have said salami…

Just because I am an old fart, I figured it might be a good idea to take KZ’s suggested questions as a guideline for this post – short-term memory loss, ya know. Now, I can only answer these questions as just an old, lady fart, not an old, gay fart, and my answers are strictly my antiquated viewpoint.  So, on to the questions.

Is ageism a built-in, unavoidable factor in all romance fiction? 
I think so, at least, most romances in the traditional, het sense. That is, you may have an older hero, but, heaven forefend if you have an older female/heroine. Unless we’re talking "women’s fiction," I believe that female readers still feel more comfortable with the younger (20s to 30s) main characters. 

I don’t believe it’s as great a factor in m/m romance. I’d have to say as a reader, the age of the characters in this genre doesn’t impact on me in the same way. I find that having more experienced males actually appeals to me. Their life history involving Stonewall, AIDS, and massive homophobia in the media, gives them a more rounded personality and back story.

I’ve never hidden my age. Even though I haven’t personally endured what may have happened to gay writers/readers, I feel that my life experience adds to my credibility as a writer. I can empathize even more so with older, gay characters, writers, readers because I had/have friends and family members whose lives were affected by the events of the 20th century.  Because their lives were impacted, my life was also, to a degree, changed. As far as detractors go, I’ve never personally had to deal with this.

I would like to see more m/m romance featuring mature men, for the reasons stated above.

I suspect ageism is a factor in all romance fiction currently. Maybe it will get better someday--who knows? It doesn't seem quite as bad with m/m romance, but I’m basing that solely on the number of stories I’ve personally read involving older men who'd been married before, had raised families and were now starting over. And, yes, they were all, for the most part, surprisingly young fathers who looked amazingly good considering their not-really-that-advanced ages! Still, these books definitely outnumber the m/f romances involving older heroines that I’m aware of. This is part of why I enjoy writing paranormal. Age is a lot less important when you’re a vampire!

I didn't used to think about how my age or appearance—or gender—might affect my credibility as a writer. I started out writing romantic suspense. It never occurred to me I had to look like a killer in order to write them. Given how often I get stopped by airport security, however, maybe I’m overlooking something that’s obvious to other people.

At this point, I’ve grown used to the reaction I get when people find out what I write. Although, it’s usually not to the extent of one woman at a book-signing recently who went on for several minutes about how ordinary I looked—not at all what she was expecting. In retrospect, I kind of wish I’d asked her if I looked more like a serial killer than she’d imagined, but that might have just scared her more.

I wouldn’t say I’m secretive about my age or my gender, but it’s not something I go out of my way to mention, either.

Romance writing by its definition promises sex. Pause for a moment and imagine two older people whom you know having sex, or having sex with someone of the same gender. Difficult, isn’t it? This is why our heroes and heroines are young, beautiful, and all possess superhuman libidos.

Youth can be quantitatively measured in years, and so from that point only, I would say that it weighs more heavily toward gay men than straight women. Beauty on the other hand is entirely subjective regardless of age. My opinion is, that if a poll is limited to the question of beauty it would be split pretty much equally. However, my answer here does not address the areas of ethnicity.

Are you wary of divulging your age for fear of losing credibility as a writer of m/m romance?
The thought has crossed my mind, but I’ve never hidden my age.

Have you written, or read, sex scenes involving men over 50? Were they explicit, romantic, or fade-to-black?
No to both the first and second question because there are so few available that I haven’t come across any.
Would you like to see more m/m romance featuring mature men?
I’m completely neutral on this point.

~ ~ ~

Please return tomorrow, 
when my guests will be 
Lynn Lorenz, Belinda McBride, Neil Plakcy,
Michael Rupured, Tali Spencer, and Lex Valentine.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Old Farts and Romance Fiction ~ Update

"It had been a long time
since Grandma got lei'd." 
(Submitted by Amy to Awkward Family Photos.)

A reminder:

My series of posts on older writers of, and characters in, m/m romance will begin Tuesday, September 25. Below are the authors scheduled to participate.

Brita Addams
Kayelle Allen
Victor J. Banis
Jeanne Barrack
P.G. Forte
Michael Halfhill
Lynn Lorenz
Belinda McBride
Neil Plakcy
Michael Rupured
Tali Spencer
Lex Valentine

Thursday, September 20, 2012

What is wrong with this PSA?

At first glance, the video below looks like something we've been seeing for years: a useful, even necessary, short film warning kids about advances made by strangers.

But this warning was issued in the horrifically benighted 1950s. Notice how all the predators have one thing in common -- and it isn't the fact they're male.

Watch Boys Beware on PBS. See more from American Experience.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

I Am Curious, Orange

I found Wee Willie Winkie here in a bag of cheese curls and liberated him. (Cheez jiz, anyone? Heh.) Now I must get him a Cheerio to make him happy. Or a Fruit Loop. :-)

Monday, September 10, 2012

Old Farts and Romance Fiction

Oliver and I continued to stand just inside the back door, our hands on each other’s waist. We looked into the eyes whose language we’d learned decades ago, the faces we’d come to adore. In a way, we were oblivious of the changes age had wrought. In a more significant way, we treasured those changes.

Not even Elizabeth Barrett Browning could've defined the scope of our love. Those electric melty tingles still hit us, although they’d moderated over the years. We didn’t mind too much. The keen thrill of skin pressed to skin had mellowed into the deeper gratification of heart bonded to heart.   

Ned Surwicki and Oliver Duncan are sixty years old at the end of my novella Electric Melty Tingles. They paid plenty of dues to be able to reach their golden years together. It's one of the reasons I love this couple, and their story, dearly.

BUT . . . do older characters generally get short shrift in romance fiction? Is this especially the case in m/m romance? If so, why? And what about older writers? Do they quail from divulging their ages or posting current photos of themselves for fear of losing credibility or making readers recoil? Is this particularly true of female authors? Has the Culture of Youth dictated our standards for fictional depictions of love and sex, as well as the people who write about them?

Many of us who create m/m romances, even of the erotic variety, are over fifty. Or sixty. Or seventy. The braver in our ranks have written older protagonists into their stories (and I mean "older" from the first sentence to the last, which takes considerable courage) and have even been forthcoming about their own ages. So, in an attempt to answer the questions I posed above, I've invited some of my peers to offer their opinions and share their experiences. They are indisputably talented authors -- male and female, gay and straight -- who, like me, ain't no spring chickens.

Stay tuned for the exact date of the post (or series of posts). This should be an interesting discussion.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Saturday Snark, Vintage Version

So for this edition of Saturday Snark (which, you might know by now, is a mini blog-hop hosted every week by the fabulous Marie Sexton), I decided to bring back the boys from FUGLY. Todd, Fallon, and Jake, aka the Hunt Club, don't have very kind things to say about men they find lacking. (Hell, they even snark on each other -- especially poor Todd, who's an embalmer.) Of course, it's the Hunt Club's standards that are lacking, not the men who are the targets of their disparaging remarks . . . and they ultimately learn that lesson the hard way.
Click on the link above (or the ones below) to see other authors' excerpts!

The Hunt Club began doing what it did best: scan the area for prey while making snide comments about the men who weren’t up to their standards.
A group of five kids walked in. They looked like kids to me, anyway, but were probably students from the university.
“Here comes the itty-bitty-titty committee,” Todd said.
“I don’t mind snack-sized,” Fal countered.
“Then maybe I should introduce you to Gabriel,” Todd told him. “I think he’s got a crush on me. I’d like to nip it in the bud.”
Gabriel was a new Sudbury-Bischoff employee, an allegedly short and quirky young guy who took care of the cosmetic side of their preparation work. Todd preferred tall, handsome men. All three of them did.
Although none of us would’ve said so to Todd, we all wondered how he managed to hang on to any hook-up after the hook-up found out what he did for a living. It was an irrational prejudice, granted, but a prejudice we had trouble overcoming. Fallon had once said, “I’d do Toddy in a minute…after I knew he’d spent a day getting detoxed by a hazmat team and another twenty-nine days in the shower.”
A short time after the twinks walked in, Jake peevishly noted the “glamazon” who was dancing with a man he fancied. Fallon, possibly taking umbrage, said glam was better than butter-faced, which described the glamazon’s partner.
“Damn, look at that one,” Todd said, pointing out a guy who was wending his way from the DJ to the bar.
“Yowza,” Jake said distastefully.
“Boy must’ve tumbled from the tippy-top of the fugly tree,” said Fal, “and hit every branch on the way down.”

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

New Contract

Just wrapped up a contract for Xylophone, my next release through Dreamspinner Press. (And let me tell ya, those e-contracts are SO COOL. Signed, sealed, and delivered in less than a minute! No use of printer ink, no trip to the post office, no $5.00 out-of-pocket for Priority Mail, and no waiting for the damned thing to get to the publisher, be signed by the publisher, and be sent back. Yes, some companies still do it that way . . . and I hate it!)

Xylophone will be released in December. Although it isn't precisely a holiday story, it ends shortly before Christmas, and its underlying theme of hope and redemption is definitely appropriate for the season.

One character is a somewhat gender-fluid exotic dancer who moonlights -- or "sunlights" -- as a clarinet player in a polka band. The other is a seemingly bland insurance salesman who takes his grandmother out dancing every weekend. Both men have a history of childhood sexual abuse they've yet to fully share with anyone, much less come to terms with.

Here's an excerpt:

Chapter Two

Dare’s new part-time job came with a new part-time family, and on Sunday morning they assembled beneath a scrubbed blue sky at a veritable shrine to families. The Wilbur H. Zandt Memorial Pavilion—open to the elements, save for its broad roof—stood on a low, grassy rise ringed by trees about to burn with October color. The simple structure looked welcoming. It seemed to invite holiday picnics and class reunions, anniversary celebrations and civic fundraising events.
Ancestors weren’t excluded from the festivities. The ghost guests even had their own viewing gallery. At the western edge of the pavilion’s grounds, in a small clearing, stood graying, lichen-patched gravestones—a humble country cemetery. Dare glimpsed it as he steered his car up a service drive to the only fully-enclosed portion of the pavilion.
One of his band mates, Max Kirchner, had already parked and was pulling his encased bass guitar out of the back seat.
“This must be the kitchen, huh?” Dare called through his open window.
Max waved, nodded, and headed inside. The other boys were already here.
There were no dressing rooms at this venue. There were no toadies to deliver finger food or groupies to deliver adoration. Hell, there wasn’t even a box office. A makeshift ticket booth was stationed at the opposite end of the structure, and the only deterrent to gate crashers was a string of triangular plastic flags, the kind that often adorned car dealerships, wrapped around the pavilion’s exterior like a belt.
Dare figured it was sufficient. The attendees were probably as honest as Abe Lincoln and not much inclined to crawl under or climb over any kind of barrier.
He opened the rear door, got a noseful of lardy kitchen odor, an earful of laconic male voices. The guys greeted him, asked if he was ready, told him not to be nervous, offered him coffee or soda.
“I’m good,” he said, which pretty much answered everything. He glanced down at his legs and grimaced. “Except for these pants.”
“What, too tight?” asked Junior, the band’s drummer.
Bob, their leader, cruised past Dare and squeezed his shoulder. “Just remove a coupla pairs of those socks you got stuffed in the crotch and you’ll be fine.”
“The damn things are red,” Dare said, staring after him. He ignored the socks comment, even though it had made him blush.
Bob stopped, turned, and clapped his hands to his face in much the same way Trixie had done last night, except his fingernails remained securely in place. “Well, I’ll be damned. They are!” He rolled his eyes and kept walking.
“At least they match your face,” Max said with a chuckle.
“Shit,” Dare muttered. “I’m just glad I didn’t get pulled over on the way here.”
In addition to the red pants, he was also wearing a white shirt (couldn’t gripe too much about that) and a navy blue tie patterned with white stars and squiggles. It looked like a twelve-year-old’s silk-screening project.
“Quit worrying about your co-toor and come see what I got,” Bob said over his shoulder.
Dare finished with his preparations and ambled over. “Nice,” he said. “Shiny.”
He eyed Bob’s new accordion. Arrogantly, it leered back at him, its mottled carapace gleaming, its scrolled grilles bracketing the keyboard like elaborate tribal scars. Red, white, and blue balls, or maybe bubbles, decorated the edges of its folded bellows.
Bob Chmielewski was nothing if not patriotic. And flashy. The B-flat clarinet Dare gripped in one hand looked like an anorexic phantom hovering near a Mardi Gras king. Hard to believe the squeezebox and licorice stick were distant relatives, if only by virtue of their reeds.
So this was what Bob’s trip out east had yielded. From the moment Dare had auditioned for the band, its leader had been grumble-bragging about having to travel “halfway across the damn country” to pick up his new “box.”
“I thought it was made in Italy,” Dare said as Bob lightly, randomly pressed the bass buttons.
“You bet. In Castelfidardo.” Bob pronounced the name like an American Midwesterner who’d only heard Italian spoken by waiters and comedians. Which was exactly what he was.
At their backs, Max, Junior, and Ernie noodled around as they leaned against one of the kitchen’s long, stainless steel counters. Ernie’s banjo shook out a few bars of “Hoop Dee Doo.”
The other four men in the group were anywhere from twenty-five to forty years older than Dare and a whole lot straighter. More wholesome, too. Sporting beer bellies and the rosy cheeks of the good life, they were all husbands and fathers and grandfathers. If they suspected something other than age, weight, wives, and progeny set them apart from their clarinetist, they never let on. Not overtly, anyway.
They were good shits, all of them. From bodacious Bob to gentle, taciturn Ernie, from clueless Junior to the sharper and smarter Max, they were salt of the earth.
Dare felt at ease with these guys. Not a one of them, he knew instinctively, would ever be the perpetrator of an Incident.
Bob hoisted the accordion from its case and slipped its straps over his hammy shoulders. When he glanced at Dare, his look went grouchy. “Straighten your tie, kid.”
Dare straightened his tie—at least, he did the best he could without a mirror and with a hand full of clarinet. “If it was made in Italy, then why does it say ‘Lucille’?” He mentally played with the pronunciation. Maybe it was Loo-chee-lay, emphasis on the second syllable.
“’Cause that’s what I named her.”
Dare was stunned. “You can’t name your accordion Lucille! That name is reserved for B. B. King’s guitars!”
“Ask me if I care,” Bob said with a touch of huffiness. “For your information, Lucille was the name of my sainted music teacher.”
Dare helplessly extended a hand toward the glittering cursive that extended above the keyboard. “But—”
“But nothing. Do you have any idea what I paid for this baby? Not to mention I had to drive out to friggin’ New Jersey to get it.” Juggling his shoulders, Bob adjusted the accordion’s position and undid the bellows clips. Softly, Lucille wheezed in relief. “I’ll call it The Queen’s Poontang if I want to.”
“Which queen?” Junior asked from behind them. He seemed genuinely curious.
“I don’t give a crap,” Bob said impatiently. “Just pick one.”
Dare was tempted to say Freddy Mercury, but he knew the subsequent explanation wouldn’t be worth the time or effort. Besides, Freddy never had a poontang.
“I’d say the Queen of Kiss My Ass.” Grinning, Max strolled past Dare and laid a hand on his back. He leaned forward and murmured, “I agree with you about the name.”
“I mean, really,” Dare murmured back, and immediately wondered if he’d sounded too gay. He wasn’t sure what tipped off older straight guys to homosexuality, except blatantly flaming behavior, but it was always hard to see yourself as others saw you.
There was no indication Max possessed even rudimentary gaydar. Thank goodness.
Of course Dare hadn’t mentioned his orientation when he’d auditioned—it was completely irrelevant—but he feared being found out. This band and its audiences exemplified small-town conservatism. And he needed, even wanted this job too much to lose it.
Dare turned his attention to his own instrument, slipping the mouthpiece between his lips and licking the reed, idly dancing his fingers over the keys to make sure none of the pads was sticking. He’d had to replace a few—the original leather ones tended to dry out and shrink over time, which impaired their effectiveness in covering the tone holes—and elastic silicone pads were still new to him. They slapped into place nice and tightly.
Crowd noise from the pavilion continued modestly to swell and make its way into the kitchen. Butterflies awoke in Dare’s stomach. He told himself to relax. This wasn’t exactly a sold-out concert at Shea Stadium, and the people here would be more focused on each song’s beat than on the band’s musicianship.
Bob flipped his wrist and checked his watch. “Any minute now.”
The three other band members gathered near one of the kitchen’s two doors. “Mad Max” Kirchner loosely held the neck of his bass guitar. Ernie Novak had a forearm slung casually over his banjo. Junior Schoenfeld’s drum set was already set up on stage, along with Bob’s glockenspiel. And Daren Webster Boothe, gender-defying performer at the Sugar Bowl and newest member of Bouncin’ Bob’s Polka Doodles, clutched his nameless clarinet in one sweaty hand.
At least he wasn’t thinking about Incidents and Situations and Issues. Today he was a whole new person—not homosexual or intersexual or any kind of sexual. He wore no jewelry. His rakish hair, its highlights washed down the shower drain, was neatly combed, his face bore a faint shadow of stubble but not a lick of makeup, and his body was concealed by the same dorky outfit the four older dudes around him were wearing.
Today he was an ordinary-looking guy in an ordinary little band, an unremarkable cog in a small but noisy piece of machinery, and he would do his best to keep the apparatus running smoothly.
From the other side of the wall that separated the kitchen from the rest of the pavilion, a man’s voice boomed through a microphone, “Are you ready to polka?”
The crowd didn’t exactly roar in response, but they clapped with what Dare interpreted as enthusiasm. A few whistles even cut through the applause. (Old guys, Dare had noticed in his twenty-six years on earth, prided themselves on the strength and shrillness of their whistles. He’d never figured out the technique.)
The band jauntily emerged from the kitchen and climbed the stairs that led up to the stage, where three music stands, spaced carefully in front of Junior’s drums, awaited them. Bob didn’t need a music stand. Every note of every song was etched indelibly in his brain.
More clapping rolled their way. As Dare gazed over the sea of aging faces and immovable hair, Bouncin’ Bob threw up his arms.
The band members shouted in concert, “Polka doodle-doooooo!”