“Kinder” by Steve Berman from Best Gay Stories 2009 (Lethe Press).
There are two ways you can read the title of this story. I started to go with the more commonplace one, but quickly re-thought that decision after I stopped to consider who wrote it. Unconventional? Out of left field? Of course. And thank god, too. This was just the comic relief that was needed following three more serious stories and an essay (skipped in these reviews).
In this story we are introduced to Alexander, the caretaker for the Grueller House historic home, a tourist stop located somewhere in Pennsylvania. He’s just found evidence of vermin in the house—he assumes it is an infestation of rats—and is conducting a thorough survey of the place. As he goes about it we get a clear picture of him as a nervous, extremely uptight sort of man, the type who enforces rules, not breaks them. Many of those rules are archaic, or esoteric, or even of his making, which means, of course, that there’s a high probability that anyone he comes in contact with will ruffle his feathers.
The first person we see this happen with is an elderly lady who storms in late in the afternoon, declares that she is a mystery writer, and proceeds to barge into places in the house that tourists are not allowed to go, and touch things visitors are not allowed to touch. Her brash demeanor is the first real clue that the story is meant to be humorous. I found myself giggling every few pages at poor Alexander’s torment, and the delightful absurdity of the story’s premise.
There’s an author’s note after the story which purports to explain what inspired the piece. It was taken from the author’s second collection of short stories, Second Thoughts: More Queer and Weird Stories (Lethe Press, 2008). This reminds me that this past spring I skipped reviewing that collection in order to leap straight to his third one, Red Caps: New Fairy Tales for Out of the Ordinary Readers. While I’m thinking about it, let me say that I found the author’s notes following every entry in Second Thoughts to be absolutely riveting, especially when they were every bit as fantastical as the story they supposedly explained, as is the case with this particular one.