“Gratitude” by Felice Picano from Fool for Love: New Gay Fiction (Cleis Press, 2009).

The careful way this story is crafted is astonishing. It’s a study in juxtaposition. A man of letters, Niels Llewellyn, has just achieved the sort of career success every writer at some point or another fantasizes about, even briefly, whether they admit it or not. His life up to that point is laid out for the reader, even as his bright future stands ready to supplant it. He should be riotously happy, and yet…. The character study of his circle of “friends” is not flattering, and we find that Niels has almost no real friends left, just associates with agendas. This climb to the top has taken so long and exacted such a toll along the way that there is almost nothing left but a success that feels hollow.

We’re told that on his way to the meeting that bridges who he was to who he will be, he was stopped short by the sight of another man on the street, a construction worker eating lunch with his friends. Everything we’ve been shown to that point gets flipped on its head through the author’s choice of language and imagery, and even more doubt is cast on the prospect that what Niels has achieved really is success, really is happiness.

That would be enough, but upon leaving the meeting Niels sees the construction worker again. Again, he stops to admire him. Then something happens that alters his future in ways he could never have imagined, and makes him (and us) contemplate just what it is that makes a life a success.