Sit Down

Hi, everyone. I wanted to share a story I wrote for this week’s Two-Minutes-Go. I didn’t intend to be political, but sometimes the characters have other ideas. I hope you’ll read the brilliant work being posted on JD Mader’s blog, and maybe one week, you’ll join us.

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Betty liked to make one full circle of the main floor and the gallery before she left for the night, plucking up any papers or loose items strewn about. There was no need; the cleaning crew was spit-spot like Mary Poppins, in before the break of dawn preparing for the day ahead, but it was a small courtesy she prided herself on and had for the last twenty-five years she’d been a fixture in this place. On her last sweep through the first floor she found three empty coffee cups, several newspapers, and pair of eyeglasses someone would be dearly missing in the morning. She slipped them into the pocket of her apron and paused before leaving, admiring the gleam of the brass and the polished wood lectern and the deep blue carpeting. It was so much more impressive in person than on the television. That’s what she usually told people who asked. But because of her work hours, she rarely got to see any of the senators in action. She’d heard about what happened yesterday—who hadn’t—and she’d shaken her head, imagining those important men and women, in their expensive suits, sitting on the floor! She knew the carpeting was clean; the steamers had been in just last weekend, but still. The second-shift men in the cafeteria didn’t see what good would come of it, and they argued among themselves, but they’d stood at the ready, always a new pot of coffee brewing. One of them bragged he himself had served a cup of coffee to a man who had marched in Selma, Alabama, way long ago. That man. That man was sitting on the floor not ten feet from where she was standing. She slipped a glance right, then left, then walked over to that spot. One hand on a chair’s armrest, she lowered herself to the pile. It was sturdy, but soft, and she dug her fingers into it and listened carefully. She could almost feel them then, could almost hear their words still echoing around the room. She inhaled and exhaled in time with their chanting back and forth, their calls for justice to be done. She sat for a long while, imagining faces, speeches, and what, if anything, would come of it. And then she jumped at the sound of a thin, uncertain voice calling her name.

“Miss Betty?” it said again.

She turned. She knew that young man. He worked for one of the senators, she couldn’t remember which, and he reminded her of her son when he was that age, and she could not help but stare, even as embarrassment heated her face for being caught.

“You all right?” he said.

He stepped forward to help her from the carpet, but she waved him off. “I’m fine,” she said.

It came out sort of snippy, and he smiled and said softly, “Well, all right then.”

“Is there something I can help you with?”

“Yes. The senator. He left his reading glasses here, he thinks…”

She fished them from her pocket. Turned them around in her fingers before extending her arm toward him. “These them?”

“Yes, ma’am, thank you.”

He held the frames a moment, but made no move to leave. Like he wanted to talk about something.

“You were here,” she said.

“Yes, ma’am.” He pointed up toward the gallery. “It was pretty wild.”

She patted the carpet beside her. “Tell me.”

He looked confused, and hooked a thumb over his shoulder. “Miss Betty, ma’am, you can watch it on the computer in the break room. I can show you how it works, if you like.”

“No,” she said. “If you don’t mind humoring an old woman, I’d prefer if you sit right here where they sat and tell me how it started.”

The young man nodded. He smiled shyly, as if he’d been waiting to be asked, and despite the possibility of dirtying his nice suit, he folded his long legs beneath him, closed his eyes, and then began to speak.

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Relics

pharaoh-471589_1280I’m sharing a story I wrote from Friday’s 2-Minutes-Go. There’s some great writing going on. Click here if you’d like to see what we came up with this week. Maybe one week, you’ll join us. [Audio version on SoundCloud.]

—–

He was still attempting to reach her, still attempting to explain. From the moment Marta had stormed out of their house, where she’d discovered her professor husband with his best student, throughout her ride to the airport, and even as she was checking into her hotel room in Alexandria, she sent his calls, texts, and voicemail messages into the ether. The ancient Egyptians she studied had the right idea. If you wanted to vanquish an enemy, remove the evidence. Chip their names from edifices, strike them from scrolls, let their good deeds, if any, never be spoken of again. The memories were harder. Especially because the two of them had made this discovery together. They’d found the pharaoh’s mistress. And yes, the irony cut her like the high-tech tools they’d used to exhume the remains. She’d been invited to speak at the opening of the exhibit; he’d declined, and now she knew why. But it was too late to back out, and besides, Marta felt she owed it to the “secret queen,” as historians had come to call her, to honor her memory, to drag her from the burial chambers relegated to the pharaoh’s servants, where she’d been hidden for thousands of years.

There was time before the curators expected her, so she asked for a private tour. She trailed a hand over the Plexiglas covering the death masks and relics and the mummified remains of the woman herself. She must have been important to him to merit such an honorable afterlife. Buried among the servants, yes, forgotten by the ages, certainly, but what ordinary person at that time in Egypt, even a palace servant, was treated so well in death? “I know you all too well,” she whispered. Squeezing her eyes shut, she remembered a time when she was the best student, the eager disciple of the man who had declined to come to Egypt and share the spotlight. She ducked into a corner and called him. “Do you love her?” she said. His silence told the story, and she hung up, and deleted him.

The Bridge

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I’d like to share another flash fiction entry inspired by JD Mader and the writing cabal at his blog, Unemployed Imagination, where he generously opens up his comment stream on Fridays for 2-Minutes-Go. (And, if you’d prefer, here’s the audio version of the story.)

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She knew where he’d be waiting. On the left bank of the creek, just over the wooden footbridge, a small hollow flanked by two old, bent trees. She checked behind her. No one had followed. Her shoulders tightened, nearly bracing the straps of her heavy backpack of their own accord, and her breath was labored, rough as adrenaline spiked through her, as it chattered down her arms and curled her small hands into fists. Again she saw the storm building in her mother’s eyes, felt the crack of the palm across her cheek. Another note from school. Another reminder that she wasn’t like her brother, would never be like her brother, that pious freak, yes ma’am, no ma’am. She could not sit still in a succession of dull as death classrooms and listen to her droning teachers tell her things she’d learned on her own years ago.

But her father understood.

He would take her away from this.

Her sneakers squished in the damp grass, the patches of mud, as she dodged and wove the familiar ground, the same rocks, the same tree roots. The creek ran high with the recent rains; she heard it before she saw it, and she followed the sound toward the old bridge. Here, she worried. The rushing water could cover anyone’s approach. The social workers. The police. But so far, nothing but grass and pale-pink sunset clouds and trees whipped by the wind. She knew where he’d be waiting. But something ahead didn’t look right. The bridge lay splintered, half in and half out of the swollen creek. No way to cross. No way to get to where he waited. With her new chance, her new name, her new life. Something flashed ahead—a whisper of movement or maybe the wind. A light clicked on. Clicked off.

She chanced the question. “How do I get across?”

“Wait there,” he said. “I’ll come to you.”

He appeared from behind a tree like a vision. Like a holy mother vision from one of her brother’s Bibles. Even in the dimming sun she could see his smile. The promise in it. The promise of far, far away, which felt like the only safety she could imagine. Hands out for balance, he stepped foot by foot down the bank. She gasped as his left leg crumpled, as he slid to the water.

“Dad!” She skittered toward him, barely catching herself in time to avoid his fate. Then, breath held, she stared. Legs weren’t supposed to bend like that. Blood ribboned out into the water. When she followed it back to the tree branch sticking out of his arm, she nearly vomited.

“Go.” His voice was a weak rasp wheezing from his throat. A faint, rhythmic whine broke through the rush of the water. Sirens. “Shit. Your mother must have—left pocket. Take my keys.”

To reach him she’d have to swim for it. And after that— “I don’t know how to drive!”

He drew in a shallow, shuddery breath. “Time to learn.”

The Chapel

repentInspired by recent events in my community, I wrote this story for Friday’s 2-Minutes-Go. Please stop by JD Mader’s blog, Unemployed Imagination, if you’d like to see what we were up to this week. Maybe one Friday, you’ll come by and write with us. Or visit and read some amazing work.

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In better days, she’d walked the twisting roads of the monastery campus, up and down the rolling hills between the highway and the river, and she’d never really noticed the small chapel before. Of course it was there, all this time, standing sentry over the water and the federalist mansions lining the opposite bank, but maybe it was like cars or babies—suddenly, when you’re in the market, they’re everywhere. Lately she’d seen crosses in the rock cliffs, haloes around streetlamps, beatific smiles on the people she passed in the supermarket. The secrets pulsed behind her eyes, in her chest, stomping their way up her throat and whining for release, and each kindly vision or reminder of potential forgiveness that magicked itself before her threatened to yank the words from her body.

I shouldn’t be here, she thought, even as she was pulling the door open. She’d never been inside a church before, didn’t feel herself worthy, didn’t feel she belonged. She almost expected alarms to go off. Intruder alert, intruder alert, unbeliever, unbeliever…

Nothing. The door echoed as it seated itself back into the frame. Her footsteps made no noise as she padded up the aisle, row upon row of wooden benches, avoiding eye contact with the series of carvings on the walls, an increasingly tortured Jesus Christ, culminating in a full-on crucifixion scene over the plain, square pulpit. Making herself as small as possible as if still anticipating a scolding nun swooping down to put her in her place, she scuttled into the third pew from the front, right side, and buried her face in her hands.

And then it occurred to her that something bigger than her own squirrel-like thoughts had driven her here, something that wanted her to speak with the man of the house, although she didn’t know what to say. How to start. Prayer was something she read about in books, saw on television—to her, in the past, they were empty words people threw at each other when awful things happened. Sending prayers. Praying for you. But she didn’t know how to pray for herself.

It could have been minutes. It could have been hours. But there she sat, curved in on herself, testing the words in her mind, but they only crackled like so much static. Then she heard a click, the groan of the door swinging open, felt the shaft of light through her eyelids.

“Oh, excuse me,” an old man’s voice said. “I didn’t realize…”

She blinked, and blinked again. He was bent, and worn, and held a cap clutched in his oak-tree hands. But his smile was kind, and it matched his eyes. Her lower lip quivered and fingers shook as she reached into her pocket and held out the syringe she’d filled and loaded into a plastic baggie, held it out to him.

“Get this away from me,” she said. “Please.”

Flash Fiction Smashing Pumpkins Edition

pumpkinA story I wrote for this week’s 2-Minutes-Go was partially inspired by actual events. Four years ago, Hurricane Irene wiped out many of the Hudson Valley’s pumpkin patches, among other devastation. Pumpkins float, in case you weren’t aware, and when the flood waters rose in New Paltz, the crop at Wallkill View Farms was washed into the neighboring river, disappointing children and amusing reporters for miles around. On a recent drive, seeing all the jack o’ lanterns on the front stoops, I was reminded of the news footage of the renegade pumpkin flotilla.

——-

The wind picked up. Eyeing his quarry as he wobbled on the east bank of the Wallkill, Pete threw out his arms and prayed for balance, his slick dress shoes doing a piss-poor job against the wet grass and the mossy rocks. This was supposed to be a quick trip. A fast dash up the Thruway, pick out a pumpkin at the big farm market, return home triumphant. A hero to his little girl, not so little anymore. But the old farmer had just lifted his raggedy eyebrows and laughed at him. “There go your pumpkins,” he said, waving a hand toward the swollen river. “Guess you don’t read the papers much, huh.”

And indeed, there went the pumpkins. A recent flood had turned the Springtown flats into a lake and, lighter than they looked, the gourds had left the building, so to speak, turning the Wallkill into a giant bob-for-produce tub.

This was ridiculous, Pete knew as he stood on the bank, the old farmer’s bark of a laugh piercing his memory, that this rash action would not make her forgive him. Would not erase the narrowed eyes, the huff, the slamming of the door. He’d tried so hard to get to the school in time to see her solo last night, but it was like the world had conspired against him. Meeting running late. Then traffic. And the goddamned rain. Now, silence from his only daughter. Before the divorce, they’d take their yearly pilgrimage to the valley, to the farm market, and she’d delight in picking out her own jack o’ lantern pumpkin. But this year, she couldn’t be bothered. His fault? Her mother’s? The adolescent need to distance herself from her parents? He didn’t know. Maybe all three.

He focused on one of the orange globes, bobbing in what looked like approachable distance. It wasn’t too bad, didn’t look like it had been damaged in its slalom along the rocks. He inched down the slope, knees shaking, his hand going for the security of a fairly strong-looking sapling.

“Come here, baby,” he crooned, stretching as far as he could. His fingertips were nearly brushing it when his feet began to move. As if they were fresh-waxed skis on the diamond slope. He knew he was done. That he was powerless to stop. He knew in that way that lengthened time, that had him windmilling his arms in an ineffectual, cartoonish attempt to change…nothing.

And then all he felt was cold. Cold water, seizing his lungs, pressing against his flailing arms, until his hands hit…something smooth. Something round. Something solid. He hugged the object as if it were his retreating daughter, as if it were the only thing standing between him and that slamming door. When they finally dredged him out, shivering with hypothermia, minus one shoe and laughing maniacally, he was still clinging to the pumpkin.

Viewfinder

640px-FirstChurchofChristScientist2One summer I took a photography class at the Art Institute of Boston and spent most of my free time roaming the city for interesting shots. During this week’s 2-Minutes-Go flash fiction fiesta at JD Mader’s blog, I remembered one of my favorite places, and this story popped up.

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Viewfinder

A tiny finger poked my shoulder. “What are you doing?”

I’d been as still as one of the stones in the Christian Science Center’s courtyard for so long that it took a moment to remember. An even longer moment to figure out how to explain it to the pixie-faced girl who’d asked the question, then peered at my camera. “Watching the world go by,” I said.

She wrinkled her small nose. Obviously, I’d chosen the wrong words. “I’m taking pictures.”

“Why?”

I pegged the girl at about five, the perfect age for her spongy brain to fill up on information about the big issues, even if she couldn’t catalog and analyze them yet. I didn’t think she’d be interested in knowing that it made me feel connected to humanity, or reduced my stress level by giving me an outlet for my frustrated creative impulses, or even because I liked the way the waning sunlight played on the reflecting pool and the smooth, polished metal surrounding it. Or because I couldn’t bear to be in the house when he came by for his things so he could move in with his new girlfriend. “Because it’s fun,” I said.

“But why is it fun?”

That one stopped me. What was “fun” about staring into a postage-stamp-sized pane of glass, lining up a shot, waiting for the right moment when the beautiful man turned his head just so as he walked beside the sentry of streetlights guarding the pool? Satisfying, maybe? But fun?

“Do you want to take a picture?” I made room for her to slip between me and the tripod.

Her eyes swept to the cobblestone, a finger pressed to her lower lip. Of course. She might think I’m some kind of freak. Stranger danger. “Or not,” I said.

She glanced up at me, and I could imagine the calculations going on in that spongy mind. If I was safe. If taking pictures of essentially nothing looked like fun.

“Can I take a picture of you?” she asked.

I looked like crap; I’d escaped the house to make way for him, so I was still wearing ripped jeans, grubby old flip-flops, and a stained T-shirt, my hair in the roughest excuse for a ponytail I could beat it into as I walked from the subway stop to the reflecting pool. But the light in the giant eyes made me melt a little, gave me a glimmer of hope that the world I’d been watching through my viewfinder still had some life in it.

Adorably self-important, as if she were a miniature Hollywood director, she told me where to stand and how to hold my arms. I did everything she asked. And as I was waiting for the shot, she tightened her hands on the camera and tripod and took off at a dead run.

Fuck.

I sprinted off after her, but in my ratty flip-flops, I couldn’t keep up, and she disappeared.

I stopped, staring off in the distance, my shoulders sagging forward. Oh, well, I thought after a while. At least it wasn’t my equipment. And knowing that was kind of fun.

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I hope you have a great week ahead. Just to let you know, most of my titles are on sale this month. Check here for the details.

Water

puddleShe wondered where the water was coming from. It hadn’t rained in weeks, the town had banned the burning of yard waste and drought warnings threatened, yet a trickle of runoff burbled its way down the culvert ditch that cut beneath the base of her driveway. Her mouth tightened, and she stuffed the day’s mail back into her box and decided to head upstream. The water gurgled, cutting over the remains of winter grit and the thin grasses brave enough to sprout in the dip alongside the road. She passed house after house—no activity, no lawn-watering, no car-washing, nothing to indicate an unnatural stress upon their aquifer. But as she climbed the hill, beyond the empty Cape Cods and redbrick boxes and by-the-numbers McMansions, the trickle became a stream and the rush of the water grew louder.

The only house left before the dead-end was the Patterson’s colonial, and as far as she knew, Dr. P was on sabbatical and had taken the family to some country she couldn’t pronounce on an archaeological expedition. That was definitely water she heard, though, as she approached the property. And a bottle-green VW Bug she’d never seen before sat in the driveway. A housesitter? What the hell? Mrs. P didn’t believe in them, wouldn’t trust a soul with her precious Hummels and Danish modern furniture and Baccarat crystal. She didn’t even let anyone take in her mail.

“Hello?” she called out, thumping on the front door, but the rush of water was coming from beyond the house. She followed, inching through the not-as-tidy-as-usual grass. And then she saw it. The giant, inflatable pool. The garden hose, which apparently had been employed to fill it, had slipped out and was now turning the side yard into a swamp.

She huffed and stabbed her fists into her hips when she saw the apparent owner of the Bug, apparently asleep on a floaty chair in the middle of the outsized kiddie pool, wearing only boxers and a contented smile. The waste infuriated her, plus the fact he was the kind of man who was so model-gorgeous that he probably felt the world owed him, him and that designed-to-be-devilish curl that fell into his eyes. Her sneakers slipped and sucked mud and soggy turf as she dashed to the side of the house to turn off the faucet, but then had another idea. She grabbed the hose and aimed it straight at the man’s six-pack. He only managed a wide-eyed gasp before capsizing his SS Minnow and came up sputtering while she twisted the nozzle tip closed.

“What the hell, lady?” Now standing in belt-high water, he shook his loose brown curls like a dog.

“Drought,” she snapped. “Climate change. Waste. Do those terms mean anything to you?”

“They should. I’ve been working the last three days putting out that wildfire up on the ridge.”

“You’re…”

“Yep. Firefighter. They called us up from Connecticut to help. My uncle said I could crash here between shifts. Was filling up the pool, guess I fell asleep.” He yawned, then gave her a slow once-over. “Hey. You look like you could use a dip, douse some of them flames shooting out your eyes.”

She readied the nozzle at him. He held up his hands. “Kidding. Jeez. I’m sorry. I should have been more careful.”

“How’s the fire?” she asked, dropping the fist clutching the nozzle to her side.

“Mostly out.”

“Thank you.”

His smile picked up speed but flagged when she narrowed her eyes at him. “Hey. Didn’t mean any harm. I’m just saying, hot day, pool full of water, and Uncle P has the makings for a pitcher of kick-ass margaritas. It’s not every day I meet such a cute environmentalist.”

She aimed the nozzle at him; he cringed and covered his face. When she didn’t shoot, he lowered his hands.

“Is it cold?” she asked.

“Your reception? A bit frosty, yeah. Maybe you want to work on that.”

“I meant the water.”

When he grinned, a little more humbly than before, she tightened the faucet and kicked off her shoes.

———

This story was inspired during JD Mader’s 2 Minutes. Go! writing fiesta flash-a-thon, held every Friday on his blog. Here’s what we wrote this week. Maybe next week you’ll come by and do some writing.

Sneak Peek: The Picture of Cool

I’m so excited to share an excerpt from my soon-to-be published short novella, The Picture of Cool. So let’s get to it…

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During a commercial break, Charlie popped into the green room for a refill on his coffee and caught one of the show’s upcoming guests, mid-pace. The press-kit photo, in his opinion, didn’t do the man justice, but the well-cut suit did. They looked about the same age—early thirties—and stood almost exactly the same height, a whisper under six feet, although this guy was broader across the shoulders. And he had that twitchy vibe Charlie had seen so many times before. An underling in the mayor’s office probably didn’t score too many live interviews on national daytime television, but according to the network’s grapevine, he was being groomed for bigger things. Charlie smiled at him. “Adam Goldberg, right?”

He nodded.

“Charlie Trager. You okay there? Can I get you anything? Water? Something to eat? A fistful of Valium?” This got a bit of a laugh, but Adam still had a death grip on the cardboard cup. “Maybe you should lay off the caffeine.”

“I’m good.” Adam put the cup down and ran the fingers of his left hand through his hair, mussing the previously perfect coif of short dark waves. “Jeez. I probably shouldn’t have done that.”

“Angela will fix it before you go on camera.”

“Good.” He huffed out a breath. “I’m sorry. Just kind of new to this. I don’t look too nervous, do I?”

He did. It was kind of cute. “You’ll do great.” Charlie checked his watch. This break included a prerecorded promo, which gave him three more minutes until they needed him back on set to run the next segment. “So tell me about this program the mayor is doing.”

Goldberg started talking about the administration’s plan to help at-risk kids. Charlie prepped his usual nod-and-smile routine of putting the waiting guests at ease. What he didn’t expect was to feel moved by what the man was saying, especially as Adam’s confidence grew, reminding Charlie of a young Jimmy Stewart. He looked a bit like Stewart, too, with that earnest, intelligent charm. Then it hit him. “This program, it’s your baby, isn’t it?”

He looked crestfallen. “It’s that obvious?”

Charlie waved a hand. “I’ll never tell.”

“Should I downplay it, maybe?”

“And lose that Mr. Smith Goes to Washington appeal? Hell no.” Charlie resisted an urge to straighten Adam’s tie. “Viewers are gonna love you…um, I mean it.” He stifled a yawn. “Sorry. I need to start taking up sleeping as a hobby.”

“I hear you. Three, four hours tops and I’m wide awake. My wife thinks I’m part bat, but my kids worry. If my daughter happens to wake up in the middle of the night, she’ll fix me a cup of warm milk and tell me to go back to bed. Eleven going on thirty, I swear. Anyway,” Adam shrugged, “I get a lot of work done when the house is quiet. Your makeup person shook her head at me when she saw the bags under my eyes and told me I need a vacation.”

Either he was exaggerating or Angela had done an especially good job, because Charlie couldn’t see anything wrong with Adam Goldberg’s face. He smirked as if dismissing the woman’s concerns. “She tells me that all the time. That the baby blues need some R and R.”

Charlie’s cell phone went off and he grabbed it. “Yeah, hon, on my way.” He ended the call and turned to Adam. “Gotta run,” he said. “Apparently, they can’t survive without me.”

The man’s brown eyes, which had grown wistful as he talked about his daughter, looked suddenly like those of a lost puppy. It was so sweet and pathetic that Charlie wanted to take him home and make him soup. “Okay,” he said, giving Adam a gentle smile. “You’re on after the action hero plugs his new movie. Not the smoothest of segues, but something tells me our viewers will be sticking around. One of the PAs will fetch you in about ten and mic you up.”

Adam nodded back, his expression firming a bit, his gaze holding Charlie’s. “Thanks. I really appreciate the opportunity.”

Charlie stood transfixed for a moment. It could have been sleep deprivation or the caffeine overload, but he swore he felt something then: a familiar ache. Why were the good ones either married or straight? Or, in this case, both?

“Just doing my job.” Charlie started to leave but stopped and set down his coffee. “I’m sorry, I hope you don’t mind, but this is bugging the hell out of me.”

He reached out to straighten Adam Goldberg’s tie, taking great pains to touch nothing but the silky fabric. Adam’s chin dropped, seemingly to watch Charlie’s hands, and when he raised it again, his eyes leveled with Charlie’s. Only for a second. Which was just long enough.

To Die, To Sleep: a story by Leland Dirks

My friend Leland Dirks posted this story in a book group on Facebook. I was riveted to every word, and as it unfolded, I had to blink away the tears to keep reading. Yet I had to continue. I’m sharing it with you because of the many ways it personally touched me,  because of the many people I’ve known who have been on that bridge, and because of the few who did not return.

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To Die, To Sleep

A bitterly cold night in January, 1977. Boulder, Colorado. Home to the best party school in the United States, according to Playboy magazine—and they ought to know. The 1960s had left their mark on the town, which some called the Berkeley of the Rockies. Beautiful girls, handsome guys, so many perfect smiles.

The smiles hid ugly ghosts—rapes, drug overdoses, and abuse. Some of the abuse bruised bodies, some bruised souls. Some of the smiles hid secrets—secrets so terrible that lives could be destroyed. There was a lot of talk about freedom and civil rights and Gay Liberation in the 1970s, but just a whisper of the word “homosexual” could destroy a career and stop a life. What would Mom and Dad say?

Read the rest here. Please share.