A Reading Teaches Me Something

I did a reading at the Bureau of General Services - Queer Division on Friday night. My friend and fellow author David Swatling, invited me to join him, Daniel W. Kelly, and J.L. Weinberg, at the reading featuring horror and suspense fiction in recognition of Halloween.

When I arrived, late, after a nerve-wracking and slow moving drive down the Henry Hudson Parkway from the Bronx, I discovered my third book, Unbroken, would be on display along with my allegorical Vampire novella, Vampire Rising. I immediately recognized I faced a two-fold challenge: how to present a horror novel that really wasn’t a horror novel at all, and, two, how to tie to very different books together.

I read third. While awaiting my turn, I wrote an intro for myself and pulled a reading from Unbroken. What follows is an excerpt from my reading.

“For me, when I think of horror, I think the true horror is how we sometimes treat each other—especially those who are different from us.

“I’ll be reading from Vampire Rising and Unbroken, tonight. These two readings focus on “first looks”—you know, that moment when we see someone and looking at them reveals something about them—or about us.”

The first scene I read was from Vampire Rising. Barnabas, a 25-year-old encaustic painter goes to a party at the home of his former teacher, Gatsby Collins, a 400-year-old closeted Vampire. In this scene there comes a moment when the closet door opens a crack:

It was in the music room, then, that Barnabas saw Gatsby for the first time since graduation some seven years before. Barnabas paused to let his eyes adjust to the room’s dimness, for his night vision was poor. It was a room of pearl grays and faded gold damask, dark wood and darker carpets, all shadowed in flickering candlelight. Gatsby was seated at an ebony nine-and-a half foot Bosendorfer Concert grand piano—the one with ninety-five keys, rather than the standard eighty-eight—which dominated the room. Gatsby himself had a pewter finish: silvery hair swept back, eyes like pieces of ice, pale cheekbones that gleamed. He was cool and pale, champagne in an ice bucket. Playing selections from “A Chorus Line” for a crowd of stalwart admirers, he was radiant in that darkened room. He was gorgeous and charismatic, a charmer of snakes and men.

He looked up and, seeing Barnabas in the doorway, gasped, for Barnabas was as beautiful as he’d remembered: his caramel skin glowed with youth and vigor. His wide, innocent eyes were clear and his dark hair was cropped short; gone was the defiant retro Afro he’d worn in high school. Staring at him, the frisson of lust and love that shot through him caused Gatsby to miss a note, and frown. He bent over the keyboard; his face dipped into shadow, dissolving into triangles of violet and purple.
To Barnabas, Gatsby looked exactly as he had when he had been his teacher seven years before, and yet he seemed more glamorous; he looked like a 1930s film star perfectly preserved on silver nitrate.

Barnabas, unsure, started to walk across the room to where Gatsby sat at the piano. Gatsby, without taking his eyes off Barnabas, rose and, closing the piano’s lid, murmured something to his audience, who turned to watch Barnabas. Keeping his gaze on Barnabas, Gatsby drifted over, bringing with him sepia tones and a martini.

“Hello, Barnabas,” Gatsby whispered. A smile, fragile as tissue paper, wrapped around his words. He offered his hand like an argentine gift of inestimable value. 

Barnabas took his hand shyly and murmured back, “Hi, Mr. Calloway.” 

“Please! We’re no longer in high school. I’m no longer your teacher. Call me Gatsby.” 

Barnabas nodded. “Gatsby.” He’d always addressed him as Mr. Calloway, but he thought of him, in his head, as Gatsby. Still, saying his name aloud sounded strange to his ears but he liked the way the syllables felt in his mouth: Gats-by. 

“Ah. That’s better.” 

The room was cool and Barnabas shivered. “You’re cold,” Gatsby said, taking his arm. There was something antique about him. Heightening the effect was the way he treated Barnabas—with a certain genteel courtliness that in itself seemed of a different age. Indeed Barnabas noticed most of the men in the room exhibited a similar old world mannerliness. “Come, let us sit by the fire.” Gatsby gestured for Barnabas to sit. As Barnabas sank into a worn leather club chair, Gatsby placed his martini glass on a passing waiter’s tray and took from it two fresh Martini glasses. “A Vesper martini, tonight’s signature cocktail,” he explained handing one to Barnabas. “Two more,” he said to the waiter before sitting in the chair opposite Barnabas.

Gatsby smiled and it was then that Barnabas saw the canine teeth. He’d suspected it but still he jumped a little. Gatsby noticed the tremor that passed through Barnabas. He stopped smiling and stared into the middle distance as firelight played over his features, painting them now pink, now pearl. After a moment the tension passed and they continued as before.

The second scene is from Unbroken and centers on the moment in a young Lincoln’s life. An undeniable sissy, he announces at age 6 that he will marry his best friend a boy. His parents go to great lengths to “fix” him and almost convince him that he is mistaken, that he will change…

I was twelve, and in seventh grade. He was the new kid. His name was Jose Calderon. He walked into fourth period music, smiled, and changed everything. Until that moment, I had believed their lies, had ignored my own truth. I would change they told me, just wait and see. I would want to marry a girl, have children, and a dog, and a split-level house in the suburbs just like on The Brady Bunch because that’s what all boys wanted when they grew up and left childish things behind. Time, they said, would fix me, and I’d feel as other boys felt. Time had passed and I was still…broken.

As I was leaving, I was mentally going over all the things I did wrong, could have done better. I should have done a better job of setting up each scene but at the time I just wanted to plunge the audience into the middle of the story which is reflective of my books in general—I just drop the reader into the thick of things and help them piece the story together. Normally I memorize what I will read but this week I hadn’t had time and then I switched passages at the last minute. I should have been better prepared I chided myself.

Two men stopped me, and momentarily silenced the critical voices in my head. I recognized them because they had sat in the front row to my right. As I read I found myself glancing at them because they kept smiling and nodding and I felt reassured by their presence. They told me they just wanted to thank me for reading and tell me how much they’d enjoyed what I’d read. One of them said he really liked my shirt. I thanked him and confessed that I’d been upset because the valet at the garage had driven off before I could retrieve from the backseat the blazer I’d planned to wear. “Well I’m glad,” he said, “Because I got to see more of that great shirt.”

And that’s when it hit me—sometimes things don’t go according to plan, things change and the last minute and you have to adapt. It is in the adaptation that we soar. 

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