California resident Denis Johnston makes his debut as a professional writer in the Department of First Stories of our current issue (September/October 2021) with the story “Snail Mail.” Like this post, the story is infused with the author’s offbeat humor. Don’t miss it! —Janet Hutchings
I own some responsibility for the worldwide COVID 19 pandemic. For Halloween 2019 I wore a medieval bird mask, a plague hat, and completed the costume with the tackiest polyester coat I could find. Turns out that mocking the universe with thrift shop bargains wasn’t a brilliant idea. 2020 made the academic words “pandemic,” “quarantine,” and “lockdown,” part of the world’s shared experience.
It’s a fair guess that most people figured to use lockdown to better themselves. Healthy eating and rigorous exercise were certainly going to improve my well-being. I live in Los Angeles, so kale and tofu scrambles are a requirement, but they only lasted until I heard the siren call of pizza. Sausage and two kinds of pepperoni didn’t up the good-for-me factor but, hey, I was on lockdown. The exercise program didn’t go much better—burpees only lasted two weeks and my walks got shorter every day, especially in the summer. (See Los Angeles above). Sheltering at home was restricting but fiction allowed me to hitch-hike and bee-bop across 1950s America, cheer on an awkward adolescent in his crusade against the phonies, and cry at an ex-slave’s haunted past. Most memorable was treading the deck of battered whaler into hell’s dark heart.
Most of what I read was every bit as engaging, entertaining, exciting, and simply incredible as their reputations proclaimed. Someday I’ll read them again. However, every now and then I needed to take breaks and turn to something I could start and finish in a single session. I started with dystopian fiction but that hit a bit too close to home. Horror, hard science fiction and space opera were welcome additions but fantasy hadn’t grabbed me since the dragons tore up my lawn and the unicorns stayed up all night partying. Don’t get me started about Pegasus—a herd of flying horses is enough of a toxic event to make staying inside a blessing. And as far as romance, well, I was already in lockdown, no need to make it hell.
I prefer mystery/crime fiction and hot damn am I lucky there’s so much excellent stuff available. Historical and modern; contemporary and classic; hilarious and tragic works deserve to be read. “Best of” summaries, themed anthologies, and single author collections had called me to bookstores in more social and less distanced times. So, at first, I braved the tedious task to mask up to leave the house—after ensuring the Pegasus herd was nowhere nearby. Even the dreadful inconvenience that the nearest shrine to the printed word controlled how many people entered and had closed off their coffee shop to browsers who chose a book from the shelf and gave it a quick glance while chugging a half-caf Americano with an extra hot, extra shot and double frothed skim foam topped by two shakes of fresh ground nutmeg didn’t stop me from making the pilgrimage.
Traveling became less feasible though, and that’s where the magazines the Post Office stuffed, jammed, or gently delivered to my mailbox became life savers. Some magazines only came every couple of months, which is nowhere near often enough, if you ask me—but all were welcome. (I’d be an ingratiating suck-up to callout EQMM and shamelessly tacky to plug my story (page 151) in the September/October issue. That’d be tempting the universe again so forget I wrote that.)
Every magazine was truly like a cardboard rectangle box confectionary Theobroma Cacao—the product of a small, tropical evergreen tree in the Malvaceae family—and contained a variety of tastes and textures. Mystery fiction has an immense variety of styles and stories. It’s only natural that different people prefer some genres over others, but it’s a big, wonderful arena where everybody can read everything. (Did I mention page 151?)
I can’t think of a subtype or genre that isn’t available at any time. I shouldn’t travel across town, much less the world, but I could go to exotic locations, meet fascinating people, and watch them bump each other off. I sipped tea with Lady Cholmendy Ffoukesworth Smythe-Smythe as she watched her husband flirt with both the upstairs maid and the butler before putting just a pinch more arsenic in his flummery. I shivered with Hardcase MacNab McDanger when he snapped his gat out and cursed the well-stacked dame who’d lured him onto the rain-drenched alleys of sunny Los Angeles. I warned Dr. Jon Dough not to miss his bus, not venture down the wrong street, and certainly not stumble into the seedy diner with the cracked and buzzing neon sign. I worried for Innocenta Newcop when she learned the corruption on the force included her seasoned partner and extended to highest intersection of religion, wealth, and politics. And I listened when a fledging journalist heard the truth about a 30-year-old murder while a farewell symphony faded into regrets and memory. Modern life was stressful, but mystery fiction took me from my limited world to mean streets, backwoods, deserts, swamps, casinos, glistening metropolises, dusty two horse towns, ships, planes, and cars. I met madmen, femmes fatales, and conflicted heroes; people living lives of quiet desperation and the morally ambiguous family next door. I heard the innocent and the guilty; the wrongly accused and the damned. I even visited the scariest place of all—the clean streets where petty grievances, jealousy, distrust caused the most dangerous animals to swear revenge.
Some went gentle into that good night, others raged against the dying of the light. Some of them pondered tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeping in its petty pace until simple resentment brought on the last syllable of recorded time.
No one’s life was especially comfortable during this time but I got to experience satisfaction knowing that some people got what was coming to them. Others engendered sympathy and empathy for being caught in webs no spider could ever master. Social distancing was necessary but the stories put me face to face with honest crooks and crooked politicians, sinning saints and saintly sinners, and the dateless, defiant, doomed, and desperate.
I’ll be glad as anyone else when things start to lift and when masks are no longer needed. It’ll be interesting then to see how many of those smiling eyes and cheerful voices reveal the full range of characters. Who masked and masked and remained a villain? I don’t know what novel to read next. It’ll be hard to top treading the decks of the Pequod, but I don’t have to choose right away. The world will go on as it needs to but I’ll find short mystery fiction to keep me engaged and amazed (I did mention a page number someplace). My biggest concern then will be staying awake late because a story is so exciting, well-written and moving that the pages practically turn themselves. Then I’ll have to haul my bleary-eyed carcass out of bed to make sure the door’s locked because you just can’t mock the universe.