The third of habu’s Grab Bag short story anthologies is much like the first two, a totally unthemed gay male story collection that skips over the world in location and across time in setting and offers a variety of thoughtful themes, romance, humor, hot sex, irony, twist and/or twisted endings, and much else that has dropped out of habu’s fertile mind and into his computer on almost a daily basis during the past year. Included in this fifteen-story collection are, in addition to contemporary explorations of being an “actively gay male” in the United States, stories reflective of habu’s past in Bangkok and Hong Kong; a few inspired by a recent trip to England, Wales, and Scotland, and even a short trip to Portugal as well as several exploring favorite themes of his: first times, older and younger men, black on white, surprise and unexpected twists, and the worlds of art and spies.
The anthology fittingly starts with a “first time” story, “The Awakening,” of a young man doing just that—awakening to his sexuality and his preference as he’s thrust out into the world from a protected childhood. From there, the anthology takes a wide turn to the humorous in “Best Job in the World,” with a skin magazine editor receiving a surprise “thanks” visit from one of his unlikely authors. Turning to snarky, “Lance’s Secret” is about the plight of a college fraternity house “reliever.”
“Emmet” takes us to a university community, where a very proper university don develops a fixation on a black working-class neighbor and gives up all of his academic pretensions. “Ernestine,” which continues the black and white element, is one of habu’s rare explorations into the world of transvestites.
“Loving Wife” turns to a somber note, with a real-world look at the threat to an older-younger, same-sex marriage built on the sex drive when the older partner is dying from cancer.
We zip off next for Portugal in “Chaz’s Choice” for a “rubber-meets-the-road” decision that has to be made in the nasty world of spying. “The Negotiator,” the first of three England-based stories in the anthology, offers a different kind of espionage, as two men work each other as they each work to come out on top in an international business transaction.
“The Clothes Horse,” takes us to Hong Kong for the story of a deal to exchange services for sexy men’s clothes. In “The Video List,” a young man in rural Virginia learns that it’s more exciting and profitable to be in gay sex videos than to work in a video store. “The Celtic Sonata of Life” crosses the Atlantic to England’s Cotswolds and a special service vacation cottage. “On a String in Bangkok” takes the reader back across the world for a habu reminiscence about gay life in Bangkok in the mid-seventies and the particular meaning of being “on a string.”
In a change-of-pace and timing piece for this anthology, “Training Asu,” set in an ancient Middle Eastern city, covers the coming-of-age initiation of a beautiful young man. “So You Want to Be in Movies” is the proverbial film producer office couch audition story, but laced with a bit of mystery and menace. The anthology ends with a historical piece set in Norwich, England, covering the developing professional life of a fine young artist who was willing to do anything to receive the mentoring of an older, accomplished artist.
From “The Awakening”:
I’m at Mr. Crabtree’s, just finishing up his lawn. It isn’t all that hot today, but I’m not wearing a T-shirt anyway. I’m not quite sure why I’m not doing that. I’m less sure of why I’ve worn gym shorts that ride low on my hips. But I suspect it has something to do with the way Mr. Crabtree is sitting there on his porch, watching me mow, and about what’s been on my mind recently. He’s in gym shorts too—and he isn’t wearing any T-shirt either. And he’s got a really, really finely worked body.
I feel all tingly and I’m hard down there. I know this is exactly what Grandma doesn’t want me feeling or doing, but I’m feeling pretty free and euphoric. I like this feeling. I like it a lot.
“You’re done?” Mr. Crabtree calls from the porch?
“Yes. Not too hard today,” I call back. “It’s getting cooler. That takes the strain off.”
“That and you’ve mowed all summer,” he says. “Your body’s hard now.”
He’s not looking at my face. His gaze has gone down from my pecs to below my waist, and that doesn’t change a thing in my arousal.
“Lookin’ real good . . . real good,” he continues, as he lifts his gaze to connect with mine and smile. “Come on up and have something to drink.”
He stands as I climb the stairs to his porch. He’s already got a pitcher of iced tea out here today.
“Unless you’ll have a beer,” he says, as he gestures at the tea. I see the magazines, as usual, are strewn on the table beside where I sit.
I also see something else. I see that his gym shorts are tented. I am aware that mine still are too—and I’m aware of that because I see where Mr. Crabtree’s gaze has gone again.
I clear my throat. “I believe today I’ll take you up on that offer of a beer, if it’s just the same to you.”
He smiles at me. It’s a big smile, like we’ve made a step toward something he’s been working on for some time. And, in fact, maybe we have.
“I don’t have any out here,” he says, holding the smile. He’s moved his hand down to the waist of his gym shorts, which are pulled down in front because of that tenting. He sticks his thumb under the waistline and pulls them down a bit more. I can see the line of the curve under his flat belly and the creases on either side where the thighs meet the hips, dipping down toward the still-hidden center of him. I feel my breathing coming a little harder.
“If it’s beer we want, we’ll have to go inside. Will you come inside with me?”
“Yes, that would be fine,” I say. It comes out more a squeak than anything else, though.
He smiles and backs up to the door, never taking his eyes off me, and pulls the screen door open. The other door into his kitchen is already open.
“Go on through to the living room,” he says as I move past him. My shoulder brushes against his chest as I pass. It makes me shudder. I’ve felt the downy hair he has running on the underside of his well-muscled pecs. I’d already seen that the line of fine, curly hair came together on his sternum and moved down his belly, where it flared out as it disappeared under his waistband. With his gym shorts pulled down in front, I have seen that there is thicker hair curling up from beneath the waistband in front.
“I’ll just be a minute,” he says. “Just getting us a couple of beers from the frig.”
I walk—almost stumble—on through to the living room, my trembling increasing as I go. I have no experience in this. This all could be natural. This might not be what I want to think it is. And I might not be able to go through with it even if it is. But I feel so ready for it. I’ve been like a bird in a cage all these years. I feel like I’m busting to do something.