This one is a keeper.
Before I can even ring, Uncle Gilberto opens the door and gives me a big hug and a kiss that smells of gin and menthol cigarettes. His dog, Ganymede, barks and snuggles his head between my legs. The cat eyes me suspiciously from the next room. From behind me, someone helps me slip off my jacket. I look over my shoulder, but nobody’s there. “Who’s that?” I ask my uncle.
“That’s Daniel,” he says.
“Hey, Daniel,” I say. “Been a while.”
Gilberto shakes a finger at the air behind me. “No, you cannot also take his shirt! I told you to behave.” Uncle Gil throws both hands into the air. “Dios mío, what have I done? Bringing my innocent nephew into a house with twenty-seven horny ghosts. Qué barbaridad. You tell me right away if any of them try anything, me entiendes, James?”
“Tio Gilberto and the 27 Ghosts” by Ben Francisco is a short that charms readers and then haunts them. It has stayed with me for a week now and will stay on my iPod for much longer.
James leaves New York City seeking refuge from the world and his life with his Uncle Gilberto who lives in a big house in San Francisco’s Castro District. Uncle Tio is an old-school queen. He lives with his dog and the ghosts of the 27 men who once shared his life and his home. Ghosts are stuck in time as is Gilberto. They spend the days re-watching old movies, singing old show-tunes, camping it up like they did before gay liberation–eternity as one long afternoon tea-dance.
James is young, finding his first love in a new city, promising his uncle that he will always “wear a raincoat.” He loves his uncle and gets along with the ghosts but how does one tell a new boyfriend that you live with 27 men only your uncle can see? James’ problem is made more difficult by the fact that his new boyfriend, his first boyfriend, is far less than perfect. James, in the throws of first love, makes mistakes because he is blinded by his emotions. Been there; done that.
“Tio Gilberto and the 27 Ghosts” by Ben Francisco is not for children and parts of it are NSFW. It is funny, it is charming, it entertains and it stays with you afterwards. You can hear it for yourself at Podcastle. I recommend it.
Paul Bowles is one of those authors I’ve known about for a long time but never read. Best known for his novel The Sheltering Sky which became a minor cult film in the 1980’s, Bowles lived the life of an American in exile–Paris, Morocco, Sri Lanka. Friends with Gertrude Stein, Aaron Copeland, Steven Spender, he travelled among the ex-pats, living the high life one could afford in third world locales. You can get a good sense of what this life must have been like from his short story “Pages from Cold Point.”
“Pages from Cold Point” is about a father and son and couldn’t help but make me think of Suddenly Last Summer by Tennessee Williams who was a friend of Bowles. The father narrates the story of how the two settle into life on a tropical island after his wife’s death. Unfortunately, they are not able to get a house near the town where the other English boys live, so Rackey, the narrator’s 16-year-old son has only the local youths for company. As the story opens, Rackey stays close to his father’s side. The two ride bikes over the island, exploring the area around their new home, more like good friends than father and son. As Rackey grows accustomed to the island, he stops riding with his father, goes off on his own sometimes not coming home until the next day. Stil, the narrator dotes on his son, admires everything about him, and is blind to the boy’s one, very serious fault.
There is much to enjoy in “Pages from Cold Point.” There is a richness of character that can be lacking in more modern short stories. The writing is never dull, but it takes its time, lingering on a scenic description, or on one particular thought or another. The narrator has retired and he is no rush to tell his tale. Overall, reading this sample has piqued my interest in Paul Bowles and put his novel into my TBR pile.
If you’ve read a good story lately and would like to post a link to it here, please do. Mr. Linky is below.
“Hands” is Sherwood Anderson’s best known story. It leads off his collection Winesburg, Ohio which is a portrait of small town America at the turn of the 20th century. Winesburg, Ohio has been popping up here and there in reviews of Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize winning book Olive Kitteridge. Both are collections of short stories that share a common character. In Ms. Strout’s book the title character appears in every story, in Mr. Anderson’s the title character is the town itself, where all of the stories are set.
“Hands” is the story of Wing Bittlebaum who has hidden out in Winesburg for twenty years, living alone in the house he inherited from his aunt. He is known throughout the town for his hands, which are always in motion. When he talks they fly about in fists, pounding on any surface he can find; when he picks strawberries they gather more than anyone in town. It was not always so.
Wing Bittlebaum used to be a school teacher, a very good school teacher. He had an easy way with his students, whom he loved and who loved him. But no one in Winesburg knows this about him. His one close friend in Winesburg is George Willard, a young man just leaving school for either work or college, he does not know yet. George visits Wing who counsels him on various topics, sometimes giving George the inspirational speeches that he must have once given to his students.
Wing Biddlebaum became wholly inspired. For once he forgot the hands. Slowly they stole forth and lay upon George Willard’s shoulders. Something new and bold came into the voice that talked. “You must try to forget all you have learned,” said the old man. “You must begin to dream. From this time on you must shut your ears to the roaring of the voices.”
Pausing in his speech, Wing Bittlebaum looked long and earnestly at George Willard. His eyes glowed. Again he raised the hands to caress the boy and then a look of horror swept over his face.
Wing Bittlebaum has never done anything inappropriate with anyone, but he has come to believe what people said about him twenty years ago when he lost his teaching job and was driven out of town. He does not trust his hands. He does not trust himself. “Hands” is often read as a story of a closeted gay man, but I am not so sure. If Wing Bittlebaum were a married man the fact that he put his arm around a student would have bothered no one, not in the 1900’s. He has no sexual desire at all, so his is not the story of a pedophile either. His story is about homophobia, not about homosexuality. He is so afraid of what people will think about him, that he has grown to fear his own hands will make an ordinary gesture of affection, one that a married man would not think twice about it.