Hoping to Inspire

Making a website for my new work in progress is intended primarily to inspire myself to make this effort a real, live, squalling, Street Stories novel, but also as a place to share the process with family, friends, and fans (should any actually exist).

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The Ugly Past Rears Up

What was it about Lily’s scream that had touched a raw nerve in her? Jo almost shuddered as she remembered. She’d been worried and anxious about Lily’s situation and her reaction to the subject of contacting her family, but that scream had taken Jo beyond those mostly detached emotions. The scream had shaken her—she tried not to think it, there had to be a better to way to say it, wasn’t there? But no, maybe not. Jo had been shaken her to the core. A gut wrenching, tearing sensation that touched a nerve so deep she didn’t want to know where it came from.

Author’s Aside: The difficulty with character arcs that occur over several books in a series, is making sure that someone who picks up book four, say, without reading one through three, understands what’s going on, without sounding repetitious to long-standing readers.

Did it have something to do with her father? With why she couldn’t seem to let go of her distrust? She was reminded of a dream she often had: a young boy dead in the gutter of a dark street, hand stretched out as if reaching for rescue. Was there some deep dark secret memory she didn’t want to look at?

Then she realized Jack was standing there watching her with a line between his eyebrows that couldn’t have been any clearer if it had formed a question mark. How long had she been standing there struggling internally? She was losing it, for sure. And in front of Jack no less.

Jo smiled, a little, her gaze meeting his then away then back again. “Thanks, Doc, I needed that.”

She turned and walked back to the office, satisfied. Just the right mix of sincerity and humor, she thought. Confidentiality crisis averted; friendship saved.

Jack knew nothing about her father’s past and Jo’s struggle with it. Only Keisha was privy to that secret. But she’d almost told him when he looked at her like that, with the memory of his comforting arms around her.

Jo shook her head slightly and opened the door into the office. Someday. Maybe. Or maybe not.

The Dam Has Loosed!

Jo pulled Jack out into the hallway with a firm grip that left red prints on his forearm. When she saw there was no one else in the corridor, she put a hand on her hip and stabbed him in the chest with one finger.

Author’s Aside:
I have been struggling with the same chapter for about two weeks. Then suddenly when swimming today, this (and a bunch more) came flooding in.

“I know you’ve got rules you need to follow, Jack,” she said, seething. “And there’s good reasons for them, I realize that. If there weren’t rules, it would be too easy for assholes to really exploit these kids by pretending they were helping. But I say fuck those rules, Jack. Today I just want to screw all the rules and do the right thing. If you can’t get her into Maddy’s Place, then that’s fine. I’ll figure out something else. But they’re not calling her family, you hear? Please don’t let them do that.”

Then suddenly his arms were around her and she was pulled close to his chest. She stiffened at first, but he felt so good, he smelled so good—all man and dried sweat and some remnant of aftershave. And, God, he was a good hugger. Her arms were trapped between them, so she couldn’t hug him back, so instead she just let herself go, closed her eyes and let herself get lost in the hug.

It wasn’t a romantic embrace, although she’d imagined that happening quite a few times in the darkness of her lonely room at night. It was an “I’ve got you” hug, a “don’t worry about a thing” that was comforting and warm and believable. She never wanted him to let go.

He did, of course. After a long, sweet minute he pulled her away from him, just a little, his hands holding her arms. Were his cheeks flushed? They were. He kept looking away from her, too, like he was embarrassed to look her into the eyes.

Author’s Aside:
Yes, You’re right, I do see romance in Jo and Jack’s future. But that’s the good thing about writing a series. You can take your time with some things.

“Thanks for doing that, Jo,” he said softly. “For calming her down like that. That girl—” The break in his voice made Jo’s own throat ache as well. “That girl has been through hell somehow. From someone. Probably her father from the sound of it.”

He let go of her and looked around like he had just suddenly realized they were standing in the middle of the hallway where anywhere could see them. They were still alone.

“Whenever someone is in physical danger like I believe Lily is,” —his voice was back to normal now, although maybe just a tinge softer than usual?— “we can ask the courts to waive the parental consent rule. It takes a while to go through, and there’s a whole lot of hoops to jump through, but she can stay at the shelter while that’s being done. Or until you find a way to get proof she’s of age, if she is.”

Jo didn’t even blink an eye at the hoop jumping metaphor. Jack’s unending supply of cliches now felt quaint and comfortable.

 

Jo’s Hot for Jack

Jack was playing basketball in the parking lot when Jo arrived at the Night Moves Center. There was an indoor court, too, since the center was housed in an old high school building, complete with gym, but this was just an informal pickup game, two-on-two, not the team builder he organized once a week.

The Night Moves Center is actually a fictional merging of two real life places I knew when I volunteered in Chicago. The outside is the buildings and parking lot where the Night Ministry bus used to park and the inside is the common room of Emmaus Ministries.

Jack looked good, Jo had to admit, even with his dark hair dripping with sweat. Who plays that hard in heat like this, she wondered. His damp t-shirt showed off the muscles in his shoulders and lean belly. And then, of course, there were those delicious, tight-ass buns.

“Good pass, TJ,” Jack shouted, even though the boy he complimented was on the opposing team.

“Yeah, but not good enough to beat us, hey, Jack-man?” A skinny kid Jo didn’t recognize stole the ball and lobbed it in the net. “That’s ten! You got beat down, bro. We the winners!”

Despite his obnoxious glee at winning, all the players shook hands with each other willingly enough, then patted Jack on the back and thanked him for a great game. Jack waited till the others had walked off before he came over to where Jo was watching.

“Lily here yet?” he asked.

I’m thinking one of these books needs to have a little Jack on Jo action, don’t you think? And I’m not talking about basketball.

He lifted the hem of his t-shirt to blot the sweat beads on his forehead. Jo tried not to be distracted by the glimpse of his abs. “I haven’t seen her. I’m early, though. Hopefully she shows.”

She had contacted him first thing that morning to tell him Avril had called and said Lily agreed to talk to them. Jack’s voice had been all professional over the phone, so Jo hadn’t been able to determine whether he was still pissed at her. At least he had agreed to join her and Lily when they met at the Center to talk about Maddy’s Place.

Even now, though Jo studied his face for frowns of disapproval, he seemed neutral enough when he answered, “Why don’t we go stake out a private room inside where we can talk when she gets here.”

“I thought you had an office here,” Jo asked as they walked inside. There were at least fifteen kids lounging in the “front room” area. A small window air conditioner rattled so loud in its attempts to cool off the huge space that they had turned up the television to its max volume. Reruns of NCIS blasted across the sound of talking and laughter.

“Not officially.” Jack led the way upstairs. “Most of my time is spent over at the shelter now, although they’re thinking of changing that. Splitting me between both places more.”

“I suppose that means more work for the same pay.”

“I don’t mind.” Jack walked past the director’s closed door and pointed at it with one thumb. “Marge needs the backup. They lost two caseworkers last month and the number of kids always doubles in summer.”

“Lost as in quit, or fired?”

Jack had opened a door on the right, glanced in, and entered without giving her an answer.

“I’m not asking for a story or anything,” Jo continued, feeling flushed and awkward. “Just curious, not scandal seeking.”

“This should do.” Jack sat behind the desk and waved to a couch along the wall for Jo to use. “Trevor Banks and I used to share it, but he’s one of the ones that moved on. Voluntarily,” he told her with one eyebrow raised. “Are you apologizing for something?”

The question took her by surprise. “What do you mean?”

“You don’t usually try to explain yourself.” Jack’s deep voice grew even more weighty and calm. “Did I strike a nerve the other day? I told you I was sorry. I thought we knew each other well enough by now not to hold grudges.”

Jo took a deep breath and let it out. “We do. Sorry. Just touching a sore tooth with the tip of my tongue. I’ll stop now.”

Avril Feeds Rosie

Avril sat down and started talking to Rosie, asking her what kind of fool would send a beautiful baby like her to such a messed up world anyway. The baby watched her with wide eyes as if she understood all of it, as if she had the answers maybe even, but wasn’t about to let on what they were. Soon the fevered sucking on the nipple slowed, allowing a trail of water to slip down the side of her mouth. One tiny fist spasmed upward, latched onto a bit of fabric, and held on tight.

There’s something about a baby that makes a heart melt, even a street-wise, smart-mouth transvestite heart like Avril’s.

“You about done with that tasteless water?” Avril realized she was talking all “goo-goo baby-ized,” but didn’t care at all. No one else could hear her but Rosie and she seemed to like it. “You do, don’t you, sweet thing? You like it when Auntie Avril talks the sweet talk, don’t you?”

This was the first time she’d ever been so close to an infant, except for when she’d helped deliver this one. She’d heard how natural it felt to cradle them in the crook of your arm, how their eyes could melt into you like welcome laser beams.

“Babies supposed to smell good, too, though, ain’t they?” she asked Rosie. “Not all stinky like you. You a stinky girl, yes, you are. Stinky girl.”

Was that a smile? No, they didn’t smile this little, did they? Whatever gas had passed across Rosie’s face, Avril felt it tug at her insides like a string tied to her colon.

“How about Auntie Avril see if she can get some of that street stink off of you, hmm?”

Rummaging in the baby box on the floor, she found a small bottle of Johnson’s baby shampoo and another receiving blanket. When she finally lowered the baby into a sink full of warm water, Rosie jerked at first in surprise, sending up a small splash, then kicked and squirmed enough to create a tsunami.

The child was a natural born Michelle Phelps. “Or maybe you a Mike?” Avril asked Rosie. “I’m not about to make the same mistake my daddy did. You free to grow up to be whoever you want, child, no matter what parts mother nature gave you on the outside. You remember that.”

Dreams

In her dreams, Avril was kneeling in front of Lily again, hands held out to catch the baby sliding out of the girl. “Push,” she told Lily and suddenly there it was, slipping into Avril’s waiting fingers like a pit from a cherry.

When Jo dreams earlier in the book, I use italics and present tense, hoping to bring the reader into the dream to give it more depth, but for Avril’s dream, it seemed more appropriate to watch it from the outside, like this.

“What is it?” Franco yelled in Avril’s ear. “What is it?”

Avril knew he was asking if the baby was a boy or a girl. She tried to focus on the tiny naked worm she held. The baby’s face was twisted and squinting, clearly pissed off at being born, but for the life of her, Avril couldn’t tell what gender it was. It was like she held a baby Ken doll in her hands, one that squirmed and was covered with wet, blood-speckled slime.

“What is it?” Franco asked again, but Avril could only look at him in confusion. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “I don’t know anymore.”

I question if this is a realistic dream. I want to show Avril’s fluidity and possible confusion over her own sexuality, but is this too stereotype?

The baby wailed in protest, fists waving, feet kicking. Avril was ready to wake up. Enough of this nonsense, she told herself. Wake up. Wake up.

Except it wasn’t a dream. Not the crying part anyway. Avril awoke to hear the sound of a baby bawling somewhere in the building. Groaning, she rolled over and pulled a pillow over head trying to drown out the disturbance. It had been an extra late Saturday night for her, working hard to make up the lost time traveling to Englewood to track down that pesky Franco. Bad dreams or no, all she wanted was to get back to sleep.

Then arguing rose over the sound of the baby. “No. I don’t want to,” someone whined, close and high pitched. The answer was male, but almost as feminine sounding, “Well, where else, then, huh? You wanna go back to Riley’s, do you? For fuck’s sake, Lily, make up your God damned mind already. It’s here or Riley’s or out on the streets. You think Rosie’s safe on the streets, do you?”

Lily? The name, filtered through the pillow, sounded like part of the dream, but when Avril heard Joe Clark from next door bellow down the hall, “For Christ’s sake, shut that kid up, will you?” she knew she was wide awake. The voices had to belong to Lily and Franco, which meant the baby was little Zara Rose.

Just as the reality of that made itself clear, a knock on the door brought Avril fully upright in bed.

“Avril?” Franco called. “Avril, you home? Come on, open up.”

Baby Rosie

Lily gasped in the thick airless room, her face slick with sweat, tendrils of hair sticking to her cheeks. Her clothes, the same ones she’d worn for two days and nights, were damp and rank with BO.

Remembering how scared I was of doing the wrong thing when my first baby was born, I tried to imagine how much worse it would feel if I were homeless and in hiding.

“Shh, Rosie, shh.” She crawled over to the baby box and patted the writhing, wailing human inside. “Quiet, please. Quiet.”

The baby’s mewling threaded through Lily, pulled on a nerve in her gut somewhere that made her feel panicked and strange. The crying also made her nipples leak and tingle.

Lily picked Rosie up and rocked back and forth, jogging the weeping, wet, tight-fisted infant. Shut up, shut up, shut up, she wanted to shout. If anyone heard them, if Riley King got fed up with them, where would they go? What would happen to them on the streets alone, even with Franco doing his best? How could she take care of a baby anywhere?

She understood, sometimes, after endless hours in this small, windowless room—no fresh air, no furniture, nothing to do except sleep and cry and sleep—how someone could leave their babies on doorsteps. Wasn’t there a law about it now? Places you could leave your baby in a box without them arresting you, without thinking of yourself as a monster.

Except she was a monster, wasn’t she? A monstrosity anyway. Someone sinful and tainted. Twisted. Someone who couldn’t imagine why any woman would want a hairy, grunting man fucking her. That couldn’t be what love was. Love was how she’d felt with Bella last summer. Love was the way her heart used to squeeze tight any time Jean whispered in her ear.

Jo Meets Franco

Even though they kept their car windows rolled up, the sound of the crowd of young people shouting and throwing blows at someone pinned down on the sidewalk was loud enough to make Jo press down hard on the gas to get out of the line of fire.

Today’s excerpt is a really rough draft that will need some tweaking, but I thought since you met Chris yesterday, you’d like to get a glimpse of Franco, too.

Flight was not so easy, however, since the street was filled with cruising cars, some passengers encouraging the violence and some simply gawking. Then a shout from down the street scattered the mob. Jo almost ran into several people who dove across her path to get to their parked cars.

They were about two blocks away from the melee when Avril finally leaned forward and pointed. “There. That’s him. That’s him for sure.”

Looking nervously in her rearview window, Jo pulled over to the curb where a slim youth in low-hanging jeans and a muscle t-shirt was leaning against a light pole. As the car stopped, he loped up to them. When Avril rolled down the window, he leaned down to look into the car, saw Avril, and froze.

Covering his surprise with bravado, he said, “You away from your home turf, girl. You branching out or something?”

“Get in, Franco.” Avril got out of the car and tilted the passenger seat forward as an invitation. He took one look around—hoping for rescue or fearful of being seen, who knew which?—before climbing in the back seat.

Jo pulled away from the curb, relieved they weren’t planning on questioning the boy in the open on such a busy street.

“Who she?” Franco asked Avril with a head nod toward Jo.

“I’m the person trying to find a safe place for Lily,” Jo answered.

She put the left blinker on and turned down a side street, away from the action along the main drag. The relative silence as they drove past residential buildings was comforting, though she knew it didn’t mean guaranteed safety by any means.

“She safe.” Franco leaned back, but when Jo looked at him in the rearview mirror, he looked anything but relaxed. “We got it covered.”

“Safe? With Riley King?” Avril blew out a raspberry. “You have got to be joking, boy. You put that baby in a viper’s nest and call it good? Where’s your head at, huh?”

Avril was bluffing. They had no proof Lily was actually staying with Riley King, just that he was involved somehow.

It worked. Franco didn’t even look surprised when he answered, “Least she still got the baby. If Lil had stayed in the hospital, that baby’d be gone, and Lily, too, probably, back to that bastard of an old man of hers.”

So her father had been abusive. That confirmed one of Jo’s theories. But that wasn’t the topic she wanted to pursue tonight.

“I’m working on getting her into Maddy’s Place.” Jo made a mental apology to Jack for stretching the truth again. “A shelter for young mothers.”

“A place they don’t make you sell dope to pay for,” Avril added with emphasis, turning in her seat to stare the boy down.

“I know you care about Lily,” Jo said quickly before the two of them could go at one another. “You’ve got to know it’s not healthy for her or the baby to stay with Riley King for long. All I want to do is talk to her, present Maddy’s Place as an option. Offer my help.”

I need to compare this scene to one of Chris in Painted Black, who also almost turned prostitute, to make sure they aren’t too similar.

Jo stopped at a stop sign and waited, her eyes meeting his in the mirror again. She could see his indecision, his distrust, but also the worry that furrowed the ridge between his eyebrows, the haunted eyes of a boy forced too soon into becoming a man.

“I’ll tell her,” he said finally. “I won’t promise anything, but I’ll tell her what you said and let her decide. If—” He frowned and leaned forward again. “If you take me back to my corner right now, before King finds out I skipped out on the job.”

Jo took a deep breath and glanced over at Avril, who was watching her with no expression. An indication that this was Jo’s call, not hers. Letting her breath out in an exaggerated sigh, Jo turned the steering wheel to the right and made a wide u-turn in the middle of the intersection before heading straight back into the mouth of Englewood hell.

A Black Door Painted Red

Today I decided to bring back Chris from Painted Black in a cameo scene somewhere in Cry Baby Cry. If you haven’t met him yet, here’s an excerpt from Painted Black of Jo watching a DVD from a peer group session that includes Chris.

“See,” Chris said, and the edited shot showed him next, leaning forward in his seat. “That’s where it’s different for me than most of you. I’m not homeless because I got kicked out, or somebody beat me up or raped me. I chose this life. It’s better this way. This way, my mom doesn’t have to worry about taking care of me and feeding me. Working three jobs. Taking care of Pete and Josey and the baby. Yeah,” he nodded his head. “It’s better this way.”

His eyes caught the camera for a second, then darted away quickly. Two high spots of color appeared on his cheeks. He fumbled for a pack of cigarettes in his pocket as the camera panned to the guy next to him.

The Chris on the screen struck Jo as slightly uncertain, but covering it with bravado. The bitterness hadn’t yet seeped into his tone.

There wasn’t much more to the video, so Jo fast-forwarded. Chris’s face zipped across the screen, and she backed up to hear him end the session with one last story.

“One day, I walked into Lakeview High with all the other kids. I just wandered around, looked into classrooms—I don’t know why, really. There’s something about the sound of a school bell ringing …. But then the halls started clearing out. Some teacher, or the principal or somebody, caught sight of me and said, ‘Hey, you, where you supposed to be right now, boy?’ I would have tried to bullshit my way out of it, but he was a big guy, so I just ran out.”

The camera stayed on him when he paused. For the long second of silence, he seemed to be lost somewhere, his gaze unfocused, smoldering cigarette forgotten.

“I call my mom sometimes. Just to let her know I’m okay, you know? Sometimes I talk for a while, tell her I’ve got a job, even if I don’t. Tell a few lies. Sometimes I don’t say much more than hi, it’s Chris, I’m okay so don’t worry, and then I say goodbye. She always says she loves me, and that she worries about me, but, you know—”

Some of of my readers will be especially happy with this news because he was a popular character. I won’t tell you when he’ll appear or what he’ll be doing, but I promise he’ll show up.

He looked up and took a drag from his cigarette. The smoke he exhaled clouded his face, making it difficult to identify the expression in his eyes. “She’s never asked me to come home. Not once.”

The camera lingered for a few moments. Smoke from the cigarette trailed in wisps in front of his face. Then the screen slowly faded to black.

Coming Full Circle

The door to the cylindrical chamber opens like a porthole in a submarine. Inside, on a mesh wire tray, petite brown feet with pale soles face outward. Jo wants to look away, but instead her gaze follows the ankles up to the slender calves, the emaciated nakedness with its sunken belly and flattened breasts, then finally settles on the terrified face of the girl cooking slowly inside.

This chapter starts off with a blatant reminder of the first book in the series, Painted Black. In so many ways, including the title, this book brings us full circle to that one.

The nightmare awakened Jo with a familiar bolt of energy. It wasn’t the first time she’d had dreams of her one glimpse of Lexie Green’s fate. It persisted even though it wasn’t even a realistic portrayal of what she’d actually seen when she glanced through a funeral home window looking for the missing girl. All she’d seen then had been the girl’s feet. She hadn’t known until much later what the chamber was for, and that Lexie had been dead before she’d been placed inside the apparatus designed to freeze-dry her into immortality.

Jo had awakened to morning at least, this time. Late morning, it seemed, from the slant of sunlight coming in from outside. The hum of her window air conditioner nearly drowned out the sounds of traffic and cars honking in the Hyde Park street in front of her building. Another sign that Jo had slept in. The neighborhood was up and thriving; it was time Jo joined them.

Padding barefoot toward the kitchen, she paused to pick up a manilla envelope someone had shoved under her door. Scrawled across the front of it, unsigned, but in familiar handwriting, read, “Squee!! I’m famous! I’ll let you buy me champaign and caviar when I get back next week. Don’t forget about Topaz. Love you. Be good.”

Inside the envelope was a copy of the latest Marie Claire magazine with four women on the cover. Building a Seasonal Wardrobe read the large print alongside the photo. Each woman wore highly fashionable clothes symbolic of the season they represented. Jo’s friend and neighbor, Keisha, with her beautifully bronze skin and dazzling smile, was the epitome of summer.

The kitchen was warmer than the bedroom, but cool enough to not prohibit the idea of baking blueberry muffins for breakfast. Her apartment did have central air conditioning, everyone in the building did, but the system was old and unreliable. Plus, Jo liked it glacial while she slept, an excuse to curl up like a hibernating bear beneath a soft comforter.

She dressed while the muffins baked, the sweet smell wafting throughout the small one bedroom flat. Then, grabbing Keisha’s keys, a muffin, and the magazine, she headed across the hall to Keisha’s apartment.

Topaz, the friendliest Siamese cat Jo had ever encountered, greeted her arrival with incessant meows that could have been greetings or complaints that she’d taken too long to come. The cat warbling turned to even louder purrs as Jo used the automatic can opener on a tin of cat food. The purrs and ankle-rubbing didn’t cease until the food dish was placed on the floor. Then, finally, Jo was able to start on her own breakfast.

Keisha had a Keurig, so it didn’t take long before Jo took her coffee to kitchen bar stool to eat and look through the fashion magazine. She found it hard to concentrate, however, barely making it through the article that accompanied Keisha’s photo shoot. The nightmare still haunted her.

I decided on the title Cry Baby Cry for several reasons, but one significant one is that CRY was the tag used by the graffiti artist who was Lexie Green’s friend, Christopher Robert Young.

She had learned of Lexie Green’s fate almost a year before, and the nightmares had, thank God, tapered off since then. Avril’s reappearance in her life, however, seemed to have revived those memories with a vengeance.

Just a Job

Avril suddenly became aware that she’d been standing in the same tense pose since they’d started talking. Her shoulder blades ached. Her calves screamed for release from the murderously high heels. She dropped into the nearest lounge chair and fingered the broken vinyl on the armrest.

I like the idea of showing that there are many levels in the trans world, and tried to express it in Avril’s description of Lonny: “Lonny had transitioned late in life and all the hormones and surgical procedures in the world couldn’t disguise her masculine beginnings.”

“Everywhere I look, there’s dead ends,” she said. “I went to the police to ask them to look into it, but they don’t even pretend they will.”

She didn’t expect sympathy. Certainly didn’t want it from Lonny Kane. But she also didn’t expect the frigid bitch to look down her nose at Avril and say, “You sure there’s a problem, Avril? Sure you’re not overreacting?” That gave Avril more buzz than an 8-hour energy drink.

“Oh, that’s right, accuse the drama queen of theatrics.” Avril jumped to her feet, ignoring the stab of pain from her feet when she did. “Makes life easy for you, does it? Pretend Zara’s fine. The tranny just crazy, that’s all. If you wasn’t a woman, if you wasn’t so pathetic a woman, I’d black your ass from here to Lake Michigan.

“How’s that for overreacting?” she called over her shoulder as she stomped to the exit. “You just lucky I don’t react all over your face.”

The sun and heat blasted her like a welding arc when she stepped outside. Blinded by the light, by her mad, with the blood rushing through her veins, Avril had to take a sec to calm down before she could think, before she could move.

She should be home sleeping, resting up for the long haul of making ends meet after dark. Some people whored because they were roped into it, hard-run by pimps like Riley King. Some just didn’t give a shit what happened to them, maybe doing it to feed a bad habit. Booze. Drugs. Whatever. For Avril, it was a job. A job that could be fun as hell, or scary as hell.

Some day, it wouldn’t bring in enough to build a life with, but she didn’t like to think about some day. Live for today. And today, God damn it, she was going to find out what the hell happened to Zara Rose if it killed her.