Kaje Harper, and the guys who live in my head…
“Write-oholic” : /rīt-.ə-ˈhȯ-lik/ – a person who looks at anything, no matter how simple or mundane, and immediately has characters leaping up inside their head, saying, “That’s me, my story, write mine…” And who can’t say no to the stories. Like this one:
Carson sat right there on the sidewalk, leaned his forehead against the rough concrete pillar of the bridge rail, and looked down at the water. This bridge wasn’t very high, and he could see occasional leaves and debris floating past on the lazy river below him. He nudged his elbow against his front pocket. The envelope in there no longer crackled crisply. Two months of rubbing had worn it thin, but he knew perfectly well what it contained.
Fifty-seven dollars. The price of a one way bus fare back to Des Moines. His father had tucked it into his jacket pocket, back in June, standing outside the bus station.
“You know this is crazy, don’t you, boy? You and that damned ukulele will be coming home flat broke in no time at all, with all the shine rubbed off those big city ideas.”
Carson had kicked his duffel bag and refused to meet his father’s eyes, for fear the old man might read the truth of just how scared and how desperate he was – desperate to be gone, and terrified that his father was right. His worst nightmare was that he’d come back a failure and squeeze himself down to a dry, brown, little life in his home town. The hometown where he’d never had the courage to even look at another boy, let alone stand up and tell his old man…
“Not that I’m sayin’ you’re not good with that thing. Hell, if you’d put the time in on a regular guitar, well, you’d still have a snowball’s chance in hell of making it big, but it wouldn’t look as dumb.”
“Thanks, Dad.” He hefted his bag onto his shoulder, and carefully picked up the uke case. Everyone and his brother played guitar. He had a unique sound. He straightened his back and forced down all his self doubts. He didn’t need his dad’s words to make his faith in himself go weak at the knees, but it was now or never. His brother was working at the feed store, his sister had two toddlers – they were never leaving. Carson had to get out. “I’ll try not to look too dumb.”
“I didn’t mean nothin’ by it. Just… Here, boy.”His father had held out the envelope. “There’s bus fare in there. You keep that safe, remember you’re always welcome back home.”
“No matter what?” His voice was strained, the truth he wanted to ask straining to escape.
“No matter.” His father’s intense stare almost gave him the courage to say the words, but in the end he’d stood silent as his father tucked the money into his pocket, gave his shoulder a slap, and strode off to his truck. No backward looks, but when the bus pulled out of the station, he saw that beat-up light-blue pickup still parked in the lot, where his father could watch him go.
Now the money he’d saved all through high school for his escape was gone. Two months of nothing but odd jobs and occasional gigs, and he was down to four dollars and change in his back pocket. And that envelope. Fifty seven dollars was two nights in the cheapest motel he’d found, where the roaches were big enough to carry away your sandwich if you took your eye off it. Two days to see if that bartender at Click meant it when she said, “You have a unique sound. Let me talk to the manager.” Or two days to burn through his last chance to go home without having to beg for more money from his father. He’d probably get the money, but he wasn’t sure his pride would let him ask.
Stay or go. He’d almost come to this once before, and then picked up a last-minute job that had refilled his reserve for a week. But now he had nothing in sight but that vague hint from the woman at the bar.
Really, he should just go home. His dad was right – a lot of venues looked at his uke and laughed. Others didn’t want him because he was under twenty-one and they were worried about their liquor license. If they gave him a chance to play, he usually had them caught enough to listen for a while, but so far that mostly got him regretful headshakes at the end of the audition. He’d made some money busking on the streets, but the cops had warned him twice, and nearly arrested him the third time. He couldn’t afford that.
He should just go home. That other hope that he’d left with – the thought that maybe outside of his small hometown he’d have the nerve to find a boyfriend – that hadn’t really worked out well either. He’d had a few experiences, anonymous and hurried, mostly hands, one glorious time a guy’s skilled mouth. But it was just sex, with no connection, better than jerking off, but not the shiny hope he’d left home and family for.
Stay or go?
He stood up, dusted his jeans off, and pulled out the envelope, feeling the thin stack of bills inside. The corners curled limply under his fingers. He tapped it on the railing, the soft shush of the paper on concrete a rhythm for his heart to beat to. Stay. Or. Go? Stay. Or. Go?
Behind him car tires squealed and a horn blasted. He jumped and lost his grip on the envelope. It sailed out of his hand, over the side, and dropped into the water. Instinctively he lunged forward over the rail, grabbing for it.
A voice yelled, “Shit! Stop!” His T-shirt suddenly dug into his neck as he was grabbed from behind.
Carson dropped back to his heels on the sidewalk, and tried to turn around. The hard grip in the back of his shirt released slowly, and he was able to pivot enough to see his captor.
The guy was about Cason’s age, skinnier despite Carson’s recent piss-poor diet, shorter, dressed in skin tight jeans and T-shirt that looked deliberate, not just outgrown. He frowned at Carson, blue eyes under dark brows looking disproportionately angry.
“You fucking idiot. It’s too shallow for that. Unless you manage somehow to break your neck, you’re going to just get hauled back out in worse shape than you went in. Believe me, that’d suck. There are better bridges for it, if you must.”
“If what?” Carson glanced over the rail, at the brown river where his last money had sunk out of sight. Then he figured it out. “Oh. Shit. I wasn’t trying to jump. I dropped something.”
“Oh.” The other guy’s gaze held his for a moment. There was something odd in his eyes. Entreaty? Disappointment? Before Carson could identify it, he’d turned away.
Carson should have just let him go, but there was a dejected set to the guy’s shoulders that made him step forward and say, “Thanks, though. Really. Just ’cause I wasn’t trying to off myself doesn’t mean I couldn’t have fallen. This rail’s pretty fucking low for a bridge.”
“Because this bridge is safe.” But the guy nodded. “No problem. My good deed for the day. It helps to keep going, knowing I did something fucking useful for someone.”
They stood looking at each other. For some reason, Carson felt like every detail of this guy was being burned into his memory – the way his dark hair curled over his ears, the line of his thin arms and chest under the thin grey cotton T, the blue of his eyes, a pale shade like overwashed denim right before it falls apart. Maybe it was the adrenaline, although he hadn’t really been that close to falling. Maybe it was the loss of those last fifty-seven dollars. Whatever the reason, Carson felt as if the beat of pulse in the guy’s neck echoed inside his own chest. He said, “I’m Carson Anders.”
“Delaney. My friends called me Del.”
Carson almost asked about the ”called” part of that, but there was a coolness to Del’s expression that didn’t invite questions. He sighed. “So. My last fifty bucks just went into the river. Any ideas how I can make more?”
Del tilted his head, lips pressed in a thin line. “No. Not for you.”
“Not for me what?”
Del shrugged, a minimum twitch of one shoulder. “You’re young and cute. You could easily get someone to pay you to suck his cock. But it ain’t worth it. Start down that road, and one day you’ll know how high all the bridges are too. You don’t want to be the one to stand there and decide which one you’re going to cross today.”
“Like you do?”
“Yeah.” Delaney’s gaze defied him to make something of it.
Carson sighed. “I don’t know what to do now.” He normally would have died before admitting that out loud, but he felt like Del was an inch from walking away, and if asking for help would keep him around a bit longer, he’d swallow his fucking pride and ask. “Got no money, no place to stay. I might have a job in two days, but there’s sleeping and eating.”
Del grunted. “Two days’re nothing. It’s summer. Sleeping out is easy. You can panhandle a couple of bucks for MacDonald’s.”
“You could pawn something. Got anything worth it in the pack? Or that case?”
“The pack’s just dirty clothes. This…” He unsnapped the latch on the ukulele case, to show off his baby.
“What’d you do? Put your guitar through a shrink cycle?”
“It’s a ukulele.”
“A fucking uke? Like that Hawaiian Elvis thing? Jesus, that’s retirement home music.”
“Not the way I play it.” He took her out of the case. The wood was smooth under his fingers and he stroked a string. Why not. What the fucking else did he have to do right now? A touch of tuning and he started to play. His voice wasn’t perfect, but it fit the tone of his baby perfectly, and the compositions were his own. He didn’t watch Del as he played. The guy might stay, or go. It was in the hands of fate.
He was startled almost out of his song-trance by the ring of coins at his feet as a woman passed by, with a nod and a smile. He managed to keep his chords true, though. Del was apparently still there, because he bent and opened up the instrument case, and dropped the coins inside on the dark lining. “Keep playing, moron.”
Carson played. If this was going to be his last big city concert, he was going out with all his favorites, given to this wide slow river, and the short intense guy with blue eyes who stood listening. He played until his voice was hoarse and his fingers cramped. And then he stopped, and looked at Del.
“Okay. So that wasn’t too fucking rocking-chair-set.” Del bent to inspect the money that had accumulated. There weren’t a lot of pedestrians on these downtown bridges, but several had dropped bills. Del said, “Nine bucks and change. Not too freaking bad. You could eat decent for that.”
Carson put his instrument down carefully in the top, and scooped the money out of the case. Without looking at Del, he said, “Or a couple of guys could do something.”
There was a silence. When he finally looked up, Del’s eyes were on him, cautious but interested. “I ain’t blowing you for nine bucks.”
“I don’t want you to.” That was a lie, because when Del said blowing you, every nerve in Carson’s body came alive with approval. But even more, he wanted to prolong this strange moment. “I was thinking Arby’s for two.”
“Food is good.”
“I still don’t know where to sleep. I might have to hock the uke to pay for a room.”
Del laughed. In that moment, Carson was happier than he’d ever been, to have made this man laugh that way, head back, eyes bright and open.
“The hell you will,” Del said. “That’s a money-maker, that is.”
“I don’t want to get busted for busking. Again.”
“I know these streets like my own fucking dick. I’ll show you where it’s safe.”
“Like a manager for street musicians?”
“With one client?”
“It’s a start,” Carson said, more firmly than he felt.
They eyed each other, in the bright August sun on that concrete bridge.
“Yeah,” Del said softly. “It could be a start.”
Carson shouldered his pack, and carefully lifted the uke case, gentle with the handle that sometimes unhooked. “Come on. I want curly fries. And a conference with my new manager.”
“You know I know sweet fuck-all about music, right?”
“Well, I know sweet fuck-all about this city. I need a native guide. I figure we can be good for each other.”
Carson held his breath, waiting for Del’s reply. Held his breath, held it, held it.
And let it out in a soft sigh, when Del said, “Shit, why not. I love those fucking curly fries.”
Hi. My name is Kaje Harper, and I’m a write-oholic.
I thought this series of blogs was a great idea – to have a bunch of authors line up posts, in the approach to GayRomLit… until I realized I’d have to actually write the thing. Blogging has never been my forte. I wanted to say hi and won’t GRL be fun, and are you looking forward to it too? But after that?
I could tell you about me, but I’ve done enough basic interviews now and I was never that interesting to begin with. Many of you already know that I’m old enough that my first stories were typed on a portable typewriter; that I’ve been published for a couple of years now; that I’ve been luckier than I deserve in the reception my stories have received.
Nothing new there. Nothing worth a whole separate blog post. So I did what we all do – I whined to a friend. ”Edmond, I don’t know what to wriiiite!”
Edmond is a fellow writer, a man whose first book I adored, even before I met him and found out he’s funny and sweet and the kind of guy who will actually try to come up with ideas. Being who he is, the ideas might be off the wall, and involve costumes and imagination, and in my case end up embarrassingly flat. I don’t have his gift with the absurd. But he’d try.
Eventually he suggested he could at least send me some interview questions I might not have answered before. And he did. I read them, snickered, said, “No.” and “Hell, no.”
He also sent a few basic ones; What’s the best thing about GayRomLit? – All the wonderful people, and the feeling of being among friends, where two guys kissing in the hallway are either ignored or applauded.
What’s the worst thing about GRL? – All the wonderful people, who are loud and enthusiastic and make my social anxiety get up and do tap dances in my gut.
He sent a few unfamiliar ones: Name two things you always buy at the grocery store and never end up using before it goes bad or gets shoved in the back of the cabinet. – Say what? Anyway, my husband cooks and he is way more organized than I’ll ever be. Other than the pineapple juice that I forgot he’s allergic to, I don’t think we have that stuff.
And Edmond also asked, A man comes to your home and says, “Kaje, I’ll give you $_________ but you can never write another book or story ever again. How much is that dollar amount? That got me thinking about just how much writing is part of my daily life. Stories pop into my head all the time. If that hypothetical guy paid me a million dollars, I could stand not putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) ever again, even though my stories are better when I write them down. That much money would set up my kids for a long time, after all, and be worth it. But if he wanted to stop the stories that roll out in my mind, unspooling complete with dialog and scene setting and all, he’d have to use the money for a frontal lobotomy. I’ve never not made up stories. I’ll never be able to stop.
As a kid, those first books were girl-gets-a-pony stories. Then I moved on to romances, which quickly went M/M. When I was fourteen and fifteen, that meant notebooks full of slash fiction, with teen-girl-no-internet fade to black sex scenes. This was forty years ago, remember. (Yeah, I’m that old.) I sat on my bed with a pencil, and made Starsky grab Hutch for that first unexpected kiss, made Frank Hardy explain to his brother Joe that he had a boyfriend, let Robin grow up enough to show Batman that he didn’t have to be so alone. And then there were Kirk and Spock…
I worked for realism, well, mostly. These might be fantasy love stories, but I wanted to believe them. Starsky and Hutch had issues as they tried to be both cops and lovers. Batman thought Robin was too young and inexperienced, and decided to be noble, and Alfred was not immediately onboard with the romance. The possibilities spun out in any free quiet moment I ever had. And after a while, my own original characters set up residence, living lives of adventure, change, loss and pain, but ending in love.
And there’s no way to turn that off.
So in the end, I decided to start this blog post with a short story, because that’s what I do. Who I am.
I’m excited about Gay Rom Lit. I look forward (with anxiety, but forward) to answering questions about why I put the depressing story line of a Mom with Alzheimer’s front and center in Sole Support or how Nor Iron Bars a Cage became a 103,000 word freebie instead of a short story. I look forward to hearing from other writers, learning from them, and meeting both familiar names and new faces from the M/M world. But at the end of the day, I’ll go home and write some more fictional guys. That’s not just what I do, it’s who I have always been. See you there.
THIS CONTEST IS NOW CLOSED