Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A Bit of Holiday Fiction, Redux

Gift Exchange
It is the heart that does the giving; the fingers only let go.
~Nigerian saying

The door opened at his back. A cheery fanfare of sleigh bells ushered in a wave of frigid air. Before the sound died and the cold surrendered to warmth, Brome looked up from the cluster of porcelain buildings he’d been regarding, their windows aglow -- a village in miniature. His gaze snagged for a moment on the tall white church at its center. A ghost image of the gilded cross atop its steeple lingered in his retinas and briefly stamped itself on the face of the new customer.

No, not a customer. Lieutenant Eliason from the Redemption Center, the place from which Brome had just fled. Tense, hyperalert, he turned back to the rows of artfully arranged houses and shops that had no match in the real world. They were too pretty. The world was not.

Without drawing attention to himself, Eliason strolled down the right-hand aisle toward his target. Brome, acting oblivious, continued to study the villages. Beneath the sweeping heat of fever, a chill gripped him. His head and muscles ached. Sweat slicked his forehead. With a handkerchief he’d pulled from his jacket, he wiped his face. Why, today of all days, did he have to feel like shit?

And why the hell did Eliason have to show up?

Brome thought he’d timed his getaway just right. Disposal of a witch, an adulterer, and an infidel was scheduled for this evening, three blocks away on the Square. Even if the Red Center was quick to broadcast a fugitive alert, those hangings would keep the local flock occupied for a while. He would’ve had a good chance of making it to the bus or train station.

“Brome.” Eliason stopped beside him. “I saw you take off in this direction after throwing the trash bags in the dumpster. Care to tell me why?” He kept his voice low.

“Because I wanted to.” Brome had always been intrigued by the charming little store with its striped awnings and six-pointed brass star above the door. The State allowed Jews to buy special licenses for selling goods and services to the Faithful. Christmas Love seemed a pleasant place to hide until the Eradication Event got underway and he could bolt.

He moved farther down the aisle as he pretended to study the array of holy-day decorations. “I’m entitled to my hour of private time after supper. I work hard when I'm on kitchen detail.” 

“But you left the premises without signing out, and you aren’t accompanied by your brother.”

Brother. Stupid euphemism. Cathcart was his keeper.

“Weren’t you assigned a new one?” Eliason paused before a terraced hill of teddy bears. Gingerly, he touched two of them, stroking their fur, brushing one's heart-patterned bow with his fingertips.     

Wary but curious, Brome followed the tentative movements from the corner of his eye. There were times like this when he thought he could actually like Eliason. Times when hed caught the lieutenant watching him in the dining hall with a bemused smile or giving him a slight nod as they passed each other in the Center’s hallways.

“Well?” Eliason prompted.

“Yes. They saddled me with Cathcart.” Brome couldn’t temper the resentment in his voice. “They don’t trust me, and I don’t trust him.”

Carols lilted through the shop’s gossamer veil of scent: apple and cinnamon, as if small, perfect housewives were baking pies in those small, perfect houses surrounded by sparkling snow. Brome thought of his grandmother. She was neither small nor perfect, but she accepted him, would shelter him. If he could get to her.

His prospects weren’t looking good.

To save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray…” Brome warned himself not to let his guard down. Smiles and nods aside, Eliason was his enemy. The lieutenant was there because Brome had gone astray and needed to be retrieved. He had to be saved from Satan’s power. At least, that was how the Redemption Center and the State saw it.

Still tailed by Eliason, Brome turned up the next aisle. They passed a decorated tree.

“How many transgressions are on your record?” Eliason continued to touch items --ornaments now -- in that tender and almost reverent way he’d touched the bears. 

A crystal snowman caught his attention. He gently lifted it away from the bough on which it hung and let it rest on the insides of his fingers, as if he were holding a treasured but fragile memory. Maybe he was.

Brome was uncomfortably moved by the sight.  

“Four,” he answered. There was no point in lying about it. The most elaborate lie wouldn’t secure Brome’s freedom. He’d have to wrest his freedom from the fist of the government and its church.

“One more and you’ll be--”

“I know what I’ll be. So you might as well leave. I’m not going back.” Determination flared into defiance. No matter what they do to me, I’m never going to change. I’ll never be part of the flock. Soon they'll classify me as irredeemable. So what’s the point of my being at the Center, except to face disposal one day?”

Eliason's brow contracted. “But . . . where will you go?”

Brome had expected threats, not concerned interest. His guard slipped. “North. To a cottage on a lake. I know the owner. Shell welcome me.”

He said nothing more. Not only had he already divulged too much, he suddenly felt lightheaded. Stress, the flu . . . boo-fucking-hoo, a mocking voice in his head concluded. Queerboy. That less-than-sympathetic sentiment had come from a reversion specialist who’d hurt him until he cried. Brome denied the details entry into his mind.

The shop twirled. Its floor tilted and fell away. Brome swayed, reached out to steady himself. His hand lightly connected with the ornament-laden tree. Loaves and fishes, cherubs and seraphs, doves and camels and lambs tinkled as he jostled them. An arm came around him from behind and kept him upright.

“You’re burning with fever,” Eliason murmured, as if Brome didn’t know. “You need to lie down.”

“I’ll be okay.”

“Not if you traipse around in this weather. You’re already sick.”

“Either leave me alone, lieutenant, or do what you came here to do.” If Eliason chose the latter course, Brome figured he could give him the slip once they were outside. 

Eliason continued to hold him, although the dizzy spell, and the need for support, had passed. “Brome, listen to me.”

“My name is David. David,” he grated. “And I’m gay.” Many bleak months had passed since he’d spoken his first name or declared his orientation. The words thrilled him. Reclaiming his identity, feeling it fill his mouth and slide from his tongue, was his greatest act of rebellion. “My name is David. And I’m gay.” All the stubborn lawlessness that had landed him in the Redemption Center was contained in that seven-word manifesto.   

He thought Eliason might reply, “Sorry, David, your field trip ends here. You’re not ‘gay’ anymore. You’re back to being Brome, a common deviant who needs straightening out.”  

Again, the lieutenant surprised him. “I’m Matthew,” he whispered, his mouth moving against the ill-shaven skin between David’s mouth and ear. The feel of his lips made David tingle. “Let me come with you. We can look after each other.” Finally, he withdrew his arm.

David’s eyes widened. He turned to face Eliason. “What?”

Was this a trick? But there was no need for trickery to nab a runaway. Lieutenants and other officers carried InstAlarms that, with the push of a button, summoned help. Some even kept hypodermic needles full of tranquilizer in their pockets. David could easily have been rendered helpless. In fact, he'd been waiting for some sign of impending capture . . . only, there’d been none.

“Why?” he asked. “You’ve made it through the program. You’re ex-homo now, a success story. And you have guaranteed employment.” That alone was no small reward, given the country’s crippled economy.

Revulsion twisted through Eliason's features. “I hate it there. My life’s a lie. Can’t you tell? Please, David, take me with you. Theres no one else I can--”

“Is everything all right?” The middle-aged woman who’d approached them was, David assumed, one of the shop’s owners. Hed glimpsed her at the checkout counter when he’d come in, standing beside a man who couldve been her husband. Her auburn hair was pulled into a thick, gleaming side-braid and her eyes were at once sharp and soft. 

Two ladies, visible through a bank of creche-lined shelves, hurried toward the door. They appeared to be the last shoppers in the store. The Eradication Event would be starting soon.

“Better now,” Eliason answered. “My buddy has the flu.”

Stunned, David directed his bleary gaze to the ornament Eliason had been admiring. He still wasn’t sure he could accept the man’s confession and believe he could be defiant too. And they could be comrades.

The woman nodded. “It’s going around. He should be in bed.” She hesitated for a beat. “Don’t you work at the Redemption Center? I’m sure I’ve seen you entering and leaving the building.”

Eliason’s cheeks flushed. “Not anymore.”

Perceptively, the woman looked from him to David and back. “I see.”  

“I like your Old Man Winters,” David said abruptly, diverting her attention to figurines of robed men with white beards. Her inquisitiveness made him uneasy.

The woman smiled wistfully. “His name is Santa Claus, at least in English. I know we’re not supposed to utter it, but that’s his name.”

She was right. Calling the figure anything other than Old Man Winter was a criminal offense. Yet here was a Jew, giving a Christmas icon’s name back to him, quietly insisting it be recognized.

David’s heart drummed faster. He didn’t risk glancing at Eliason’s face, afraid his hope wouldn’t be reflected there.

The bell at the county jail began to ring. Three measured peals, a pause, then three more. Repeated. Repeated. The guilty were being led to the gallows. David and his companions winced. Bells signaled every noteworthy event: weddings, baptisms, funerals; executions and escapes from institutions. David had come to hate bells, except for the ones on the shop’s door.

“If you’d like to take a nap,” the woman said to him with a kindness and serenity that almost, almost counteracted that dreadful tolling, “we have living quarters in the basement. The guestrooms aren't luxurious but they’re clean and comfortable. No one goes downstairs except my husband and I and a few people were close to. I’m Susan, by the way.” She pointed at the well-dressed man behind the counter. “That's Ari.”

David glanced at Eliason, at Matthew. Yes, hope was in his clear, bright eyes, in the shimmer of optimism on his face.

Can my . . . friend come with me?” 

“Of course.

Still, David hesitated.

“I know my offer seems hasty,” said Susan. “It might even sound strange. But this isn’t a trap, in case you’re worried. We believe what a brave young woman named Anne Frank once wrote. ‘. . . Nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world’.”

David considered as he and Matthew exchanged uncertain looks. He did need to rest and recover before starting his trek, and they both had to lay low for a while. Matthew gave him a subtle go-ahead nod.

“I’d appreciate that,” David said. “Thank you.” Survival, he realized, wasn’t only about suspicion; it was also about trust.

Susan looked pleased. “You’re quite welcome. And your names are…?”

Matthew told her.

“Ah, two of my favorites! Follow me, Matthew and David. There’s aspirin in the medicine chest and orange juice in the fridge. Plenty of food, too.” Susan laughed. “We do love to eat. So help yourselves.” She led them to the back of the shop and pulled aside a red curtain concealing a storage area. A nondescript door stood beyond stacks of boxes and large lawn displays. Susan wended through the stock, leaving a faint tendril of apple-and-cinnamon fragrance in her wake.

David fingered the crystal snowman in his pocket. If Matthew was still with him when he reached Gran’s house, he would give it to him on Christmas morning.

“I need to pay you for something,” he told their hostess. He couldn’t boost the ornament. Not now.

“We’ll take care of it another time. Ari and I have a dinner date.” After unlocking the door, Susan turned on a stairwell light. Candle flames flickered in the darkness below. “You can stay as long as you need to. We’ve harbored people before.”

“Harbored?” Matthew echoed.

Susan laid a hand on the side of each of their faces. “Yes. It brings us joy.” She gestured toward the stairwell. “Go on. Make yourselves at home. Don’t be alarmed if you find a tunnel behind a panel in the pantry. It has a good purpose. But I suggest you not go exploring until I tell you more and David feels stronger.” Another smile, full of caring. “Well talk again later. Merry Christmas.” 

Maybe the merriest of all, David thought as he and Matthew walked side by side toward their futures.

 Copyright © 2014 K. Z. Snow 

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Window of Mercy

I just finished the memoir Body Counts by Sean Strub (a gay activist who, among other things, founded POZ magazine). After reading this book and seeing powerful movies about the early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, I can't help being grateful for where I live.

The upper Midwest might not be glamorous or exciting, and the winters are certainly a bitch to get through, but my place of residence could very well have been a life-saver.

In the late summer/early fall of 1982, I lived and worked in northeastern Wisconsin. Through a gay coworker from Green Bay, I began socializing with a group of twenty-something queer men, including a heterosexually-oriented transman, whom I blogged about last year. (However, that's irrelevant to this particular post.) I not only had a helluva lot of fun with my new friends, I had a brief fling with one who was, I believe, the only bisexual in the group. I'll call him Marty.

On that subtly-shaded orientation spectrum from thoroughly heterosexual to thoroughly homosexual, Marty was only a few, narrow gradations away from the thoroughly-gay end. He was vastly more attracted to men. When I asked him out of curiosity how many male lovers he'd had and how many female, he estimated he'd been intimate with approximately 500 guys and maybe a dozen women.

Marty and I engaged in a range of sexual activity -- if you catch my drift. Since not getting knocked up was my primary concern, I was already on a birth-control regimen. I figured since I had that angle covered, condoms were unnecessary. Besides, certain forms of sex couldn't lead to pregnancy anyway. And besides that, Marty had no STDs. He was, like the others in the group, a profoundly decent, caring man, and I knew he would've told me if he could transmit some unpleasant germ.

Yes. I was inexcusably naive. Or maybe I had that sense of invulnerability the comes with youth.

I don't remember if word of the "gay cancer" had reached the hinterlands by 1982. Possibly, but I don't recall my friends ever talking about it. (The acronym AIDS had only just come into use that same autumn.) If local media outlets covered the story at all, their "coverage" was probably brief and vague. But lack of widespread attention hadn't kept the disease from ravaging the gay populations of New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Given Marty's promiscuity, if he and I had lived in a major urban area, especially along one of the coasts, chances are we both would've become infected.

Our window of mercy certainly didn't stay open very long. Within a handful of years, maybe even months, HIV/AIDS was sweeping the nation. Flyover country certainly didn't get a pass. The virus claimed my housemate's younger brother, who lived in the Milwaukee area, in the early 1990s, just as it claimed a sweet, funny guy who'd been a groomsman at my first wedding.

So, yeah, I was spared the consequences of my reckless behavior -- but just barely. (By the way, I believe Marty was also spared. I don't know if he ever became HIV positive, but I do know he's still alive.)

I only wish -- damn, do I wish -- the millions of lives that were ended by this plague could've had their window of mercy too.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Should authors be expected to bowdlerize their own work?

My favorite read of 2014 was K. J. Charles's Think of England. The same is true for a lot of people, which isn't surprising. It's an extraordinarily well-written and entertaining novella. But -- and I suppose this was inevitable -- a certain contingent of critics seems to think the author should have been more considerate of her readers' sensibilities. You see, the book is set in the early 20th century, in a superficially genteel society fouled by undercurrents of class consciousness and bigotry. The characters' Antisemitism, for example, is obvious.

The critics fear these elements could serve as "triggers" for certain readers.

Okay, let's go with that. Should Ms.Charles have minimized or offset the -isms of Edwardian England: racism, sexism, imperialism? Should she not have used ethnic slurs like dago? Should hero #1, Archie, have been more pure of heart and noble, and his social milieu more sanitized?

I say, Bullshit. And here's why (aside from the fact Archie redeems himself quite nicely, I feel). 

First, this is a work of historical fiction. Good writers of historical fiction make every effort to remain true to the tenor of the time, and realities of the place, about which they're writing. This means background verities aren't always pleasant and seldom reflect the degree of sociopolitical enlightenment for which residents of the 21st-century Western world strive. (Well, some of us, anyway. I have my doubts about millions of my fellow Americans.)

Second, one can't logically be an opponent of institutionalized censorship while being a proponent of rigorous and sweeping self-censorship. Censorship is censorship, whether it rests in the hands of a church or state or on the shoulders of individual authors. Decrying one while advocating the other skirts perilously close to hypocrisy, regardless of the hypocrite's good intentions.

Third, fussing over "triggers" in fiction is an absurd exercise in futility. How does one define the term? What constitutes a trigger? Dozens upon dozens of themes and situations are potentially far more disturbing than period-appropriate mores. Consider domestic violence, child sexual abuse, rape, addiction, abortion, crime, infidelity, terminal illness, terrorism, war -- the list goes on and on. Hell, even mentioning snakes or spiders or Donald Trump's hair can set off anxiety in some people. 

Does the possibility of upsetting or offending certain subsets of readers mean authors should never write about the issues I mentioned above? And countless others? I, for one, avoid BDSM content because it makes me intensely uncomfortable. I spent years in a physically abusive relationship. Although I realize, intellectually, there's a vast difference between consensual BDSM and the terror inflicted by a cruel partner, BDSM is one of my triggers. Do I expect authors to eliminate it from their work? Of course not. My point is, over-delicacy in treading around readers'  real or imagined sensitivities will leave writers with blank pages.

So I say, we need to worry less about the subject matter of fiction and more about the craft of fiction. That's the area that cries for improvement.