December 4, 2020: “The Eternal Glory That Is Ham Hocks” by Randal Kenan

Happy Friday, Story366!

Classes are over at MSU now, as today is what they call “dead day,” a day between classes and finals. Right now, I’m in the eye of the hurricane, as I graded a whole bunch of stuff, and now am awaiting assignments and finals to be turned in next week. I actually have a weekend that I don’t have to grade all that much, which is a grace at this time of the year. Will my next week be awful? Let’s just say I’ll be busy.

This semester, I’ve been overly lenient on deadlines, taking work all the way through finals week. Usually, everything would have been due by now, but instead, I gave a blanket extension. It’s been a rough semester for everybody, including me, and there’s really no reason I can think of to not be generous. I’ve had several students report positive tests for coronavirus, most of them getting pretty sick, a whole new experience for me (not to mention them). On top of that, I’ve had quite a few students report other types of illnesses. There’s a lot of stress out there, a lot of people at the end of their ropes, a lot of people who have not adjusted to this new reality, this new modality. If giving them the benefit of the doubt means they still do the assignments, then so be it. Some of them won’t rally, sure, but a some of them will. I’m ready to have a bad few days trying to figure all this out if that means I can help a few students through this. I’ve heard stories of professors who are not taking any of 2020’s shittiness into consideration, which is their right. But I don’t know how I’d live with myself if I didn’t.

Today’s post led me to read from the late Randall Kenan‘s newest book, If I Had Two Wings, out from Norton. Kenan passed away this past August, right when If I Had Two Wings came out, which is of course as tragic as anything. I’ve somehow never read any of Kenan’s work before, so this is an about-time, one that’s come much too late.

The opening story, “When We All Get to Heaven,” is about Ed Phelps, a man visiting New York for the first time in thirty years, just happy to be in the city. He’s amazed by things like fruits stands and flower carts, the beautiful simplicity of all those things in the middle of the city. He’s wondering around, taking a break from a conference he’s attending, when he comes across a crowd of young people on the sidewalk. As he’s weaving his way through, a limo pulls up and out comes two beautiful, barely clad women, followed by some sort of celebrity, whom everyone is waiting to see. The celebrity’s name is Billy, and in a moment, he and Ed are standing face-to-face on the sidewalk, their paths crossing at the right moment. A second later, three of Billy’s goons usher Ed away, but then Billy calls Ed back. He refers to Ed as “Deacon” and explains to a producer who’d been waiting for him that Ed, or the Deacon, is a famous singer in his own right, part of his entourage. Ed goes along with it, swooped up, and before long Billy’s telling the producer that the Deacon is going to play guitar and sing for everyone. Luckily, Ed can actually play guitar and strums some bars of an old hymn. The producer is not amused, wants Billy to go on and fulfill his contract, but will not permit Ed, posing as the Deacon, to go on with him. Ed instead receives VIP seats in a luxury box and watches Billy’s show, which disturbs him more than anything. After, Billy drives Ed back to his hotel—where his wife has been patiently waiting—and the two men part ways.

“Ezekiel Saw the Wheel” is about a woman named Gloria Brown who has a dream that her daughter will die in a helicopter crash. The daughter, Tamar, is shipping out for her third tour in the Middle East, and is indeed a combat helicopter pilot. The story takes place on the day before Tamar ships out and there is a party planned for later in the day. First, Gloria, who works at a funeral home, helping people plan the ceremonies, has to deal with a customer, an “out-of-towner,” a man who was traveling through the area when he wife dropped dead from a stroke at a local Hardee’s. The man is silent and dumbstruck, his vacation with his wife turned into him escorting her body back to Texas. Gloria thinks about her dream—she’s an empath—while dealing with the man, considering him and his situation, finding a connection between what he’s going through and what she hopes will not happen to her daughter.

My favorite story of those I read is “The Eternal Glory That Is Ham Hocks.” This one features a young, unnamed man who is a chef and owns his own restaurant, a modern soul food restaurant where he serves high-priced versions of his mother and grandmother’s recipes.

The story starts with the man and his mother, shucking corn in a field—farm-to-table, you know—when his mother casually drops a line about Howard Hughes, the eccentric billionaire, once visiting her in North Carolina and offering her a job. Our narrator is shocked, asking her to repeat herself, then explain herself, and most of the story, from there, is the story of how one of the world’s most famous billionaire’s showed up at their family house, trying to recruit her.

Kenan starts way back, a couple of generations, as that’s where the seeds of the story lie. There’s a lot about young Howard Hughes, the son of successful man, and the death of his mother, which brings him home from boarding school. Young Howard fiddles with this and that, forming the personality that will be his for life, and one day stumbles upon our narrator’s grandmother, cooking in the kitchen. On orders from Howard’s father, she makes simple meat and potatoes, but this time, Howard finds her cooking beans spiced with ham hocks—where the title comes from—which is unlike any food he’s ever eaten. Jump ahead a lot of years and Hughes’ father dies, leaving Howard with their budding fortune, which he turns into an empire, as well as a persona. He sells the Texas house where he grew up and moves to Hollywood, and our narrator’s grandmother is handed her final check by a lawyer, never seeing Howard again.

Meanwhile, our narrator’s family’s story is told, too, interwoven between the bits about Hughes, often overlapping. The grandmother, after her job with the Hughes family ended, moved to North Carolina, started a family, passing down her recipes to her daughter, our narrator’s mother. That mother is not a cook or chef, but still makes her mother’s recipes, which she makes for our narrator, inspiring him, one day, to become a chef and serve this food—with some foodie alterations—for the paying public.

Mom does recount the story of Hughes recruiting her for a job, but I won’t relay what happens in that exchange, or how Kenan ends this story. It’s a heartwarming tale, though, one with the quirky celebrity run-in, a really complex but rewarding structure, not to mention all the good-sounding food that makes me want to go to this fictional restaurant.

I came to Randall Kenan’s work much too late, enjoying If I Had Two Wings today, just a few months after the book came to us and Kenan left us. This is a special book, centered in Kenan’s North Carolina, featuring a variety of characters in an eclectic mix of predicaments. I very much enjoyed my time with this book today, which will certainly land on my best-of list at year’s end.

December 3, 2020: “You Would Have Told Me Not To” by Christopher Coake

Hello, Story366!

I haven’t gotten political a little bit, but I think the forty-five-minute livestream the outgoing president streamed yesterday has reinspired me. I watched the first five minutes of this performance, then simply had stop it to keep myself from vomiting. Just when I thought that he was perhaps going to concede—having set the transition into motion last week—he comes up with this crazy speech where he still insists that he won. He’s presented no proof, has not won a single lawsuit, and has seen his most loyal henchmen abandon him—I can’t believe Bill Barr is still Attorney General today after announcing that his DOJ team found no evidence of fraud on Tuesday. The president’s claims are all based on paranoia, conjecture, and sore-losering. He didn’t win, but he’s trying to convince everyone that he did.

The question is, just how much does he believe all this himself? Is his ego so big—we know that it is—to think all of these elements came together and conspired against him to steal the election? Is he just priming his base for another run? Does he have a problem admitting that he’s wrong? Or is it all just a scam to keep the donations coming in for his “legal battles,” over $150 million so far? “All of the Above” is the popular answer here, so I’m going with that.

As soon as the election ended, I said that we were in store for an interesting ten weeks, and it’s been that so far, interesting. First of all, I shouldn’t have expected the president to ever concede, to ever be gracious, or to attend Joe Biden’s inauguration—he’s holding a 2014 campaign kick-off event instead. So, no real surprises there. What’s troubling—and not at all interesting at this point—is how much damage his little tantrums are causing the country. Every time this current president sows the seeds of fraud, people in this country become disenchanted with America, with the entire system. Biden has called for healing, for moving forward, and has already been more organized, helpful, and positive at pre-presidenting in these past few weeks than the current president has been in four years, no thanks to his soon-to-be predecessor. I thought, mistakingly, that “interesting” would be good. Every day, however, I’m less convinced. We’ve had enough interesting. We need some normalcy now, some stability. January 20 can’t arrive quickly enough.

Today I read from Christopher Coake‘s brand-new collection, You Would Have Told Me Not To, out this year from Delphinium Books. I’ve read Coake’s work before, and sat on an AWP panel with him some years ago, and enjoyed both experiences. Glad to have this new book, to feature him here, and to share my findings with you here.

I read the first few stories in the collection, starting with the opener, “The First Time.” This one features Bob Kline, a thirty-five-year old man who’s going through a divorce from the woman he’s dated since high school. The story starts with Bob receiving an email from a strange woman named Vicky, who says that she’s sorry to report that Annabeth Cole has died. Bob doesn’t know who these women are, but is curious and calls Vicky. Bob finds out Annabeth is Annie, a girl he briefly dated in high school, closer to a one-night stand than a relationship, dumping her to get back with his future wife, who had dumped him a couple of weeks before. Vicky explains that Annie wanted him to know she’d died—it’s been eighteen years since their affair—but Vicky, Annie’s best friend, wants more. She wants to know that Bob remembers her, and more than that, if he remembers sleeping with her, Annie’s first time. Bob, going through that divorce, meets Vicky for a drink, which leads to Vicky scolding at him for not caring about her friend. Bob, depressed, goes to see his soon-to-be-ex, a worse idea. This is followed by Vicky calling him up again, apologizing, and inviting him over to smoke some weed. Bob heads over, thinking he might get laid, but finds something completely different.

“Her Kind of People” is about Brooke, a young woman working as a server at a banquet hall during a wedding. Brooke goes on break and settles herself in a laundry pile at the bottom of a service staircase, but is soon interrupted by people from the reception, standing at the top of the stairs, not knowing Brooke is listening below. The man and the woman begin talking and Brooke finds out they’re ex-lovers, seeing each other for the first time in a while, attending the wedding with other people. They talk about the bride and groom, but mostly about each other, crying in each other’s arms about life and what’s led them here. Brooke considers her own relationship with Kyle, a really nice man she’s dating, living with, but doesn’t remotely love. Kyle texts her constantly, but she’s really thinking about Everett, the man who broke up with her when she didn’t want to move away with him, who’s been in her heart the whole time.

The title story, “You Would Have Told Me Not To,” is probably my favorite (though it’s close), this one about Suzanne, a woman driving from Indiana to Columbus, Ohio, because she’s received a message that her son has been shot. She doesn’t know if her son, Sean, is alive or dead, as the message—from Sean’s girlfriend, Abby—just said he was shot. Suzanne is particularly upset because she and Sean have been on the outs, not having spoken in months, and she fears that’s how things will end with her only child.

When Suzanne arrives at the hospital, she finds Sean to be okay—just a flesh wound—but shifting the story into another direction, Coake reveals he’s married and Abby is pregnant. Suzanne is pretty shocked, not to mention hurt, having been kept in the dark. When Sean is discharged, she follows them to their apartment, where she sleeps the night on the couch. Suzanne is uncomfortable, for obvious reasons, but also has never liked Abby and is suddenly a guest in her house, now her mother-in-law, and soon to be a grandmother.

The next day, Suzanne wakes and hears Sean get a call from his father, her ex, Rick, and doesn’t want to hear that conversation, so she goes to the other room and looks out the window. Lo and behold, she sees a man walking on the sidewalk who looks a lot like Rick, holding a phone, coming toward her. Rick waves and now Suzanne has to deal with him, the man she’d hoped she’d never see again.

Rick is festive and happy over the reunion, the whole family together again, thinking Sean’s surprise marriage and baby is a good thing; Suzanne doesn’t know what to think. The four spend the day together—Suzanne hadn’t woken until 5 p.m. and Rick had just flown in from London—having dinner. When Sean and Abby go to bed, Rick—a handsome charmer—talks Suzanne into going out for drinks, where they revisit their relationship. Before long, they’re back at Sean’s apartment, screwing on the bathroom floor. Suzanne regrets the hell out of it, while Rick thinks it’s grand. He’s just been dumped by his second wife, while Suzanne has been in a serious relationship for some time, meaning she’s just been unfaithful, which is Rick’s bag, not hers. She can’t believe she fell Rick once again, as she had all those years ago, which led to Sean, and eventually, the mess she’s in now.

I don’t want to go any further into the story—I’ve probably gone too far, revealing the drunken tryst between Suzanne and Rick—but there’s more to this story after that, which you can find out for yourself. I like this story a lot, as I do all of the pieces I read in You Would Have Told Me Not To. Christopher Coake has a way of introducing a premise—inciting an incident, you might say—snaring us in, then really keeping us reading with his staggeringly intriguing characters, thoughtful twists, and perfectly quiet endings. These are stories about people who have loved and lost, often having been hurt and having hurt others, only to figure it out, or try to, long after. This will be one of my top books of 2020, I’m sure.

December 2, 2020: “That Screaming Silence” by Susan E. Lloy

Hey, there, Story366!

Today’s pre-post writing is about yesterday’s pre-post writing, which I have to admit: I scrambled to put it together just before midnight. I had this and that going on, and like I often do, I wrote my story/book breakdown before the what’s-going-on-in-Mike’s-life part that comes before it. This happened and that happened, and the next thing I knew, it was a quarter till twelve and I didn’t have anything yet. I started something about the blog, about it being December, how there’s only a month to go, then scrapped it, as no one really wants to hear about how many more blog entries I’m going to write (or this current discussion, for that matter). I started in about coronavirus instead—because it’s so much more engaging—and before I knew it, it was 11:58 and I didn’t really have much. I was also falling asleep as I was typing, a long day and just a tiny bit of a cold kicking my ass. I rounded out some go-get-’em-type response about tackling the rest of the year, posted at 11:59, and there we go.

After avoiding a talk about Story366 on Story366, here I am today, talking about it as if anyone’s asking for updates. I think there’s a steady following of people who like to read about the books, and when I have a good anecdote, I’m guessing people like that. But hearing about coronavirus, how tired I am, and the trials and tribulations of blogging? Not sure why I force these sometimes.

Looking back to 2016, I didn’t always do this. Sometimes my first sentence introduces the collection and author and press, as I’ll do here in a bit, and I’d just rip into the book. Somewhere along the way, I started adding personal stories, making this more than a story discussion, but my own personal diary. I’m not sure when that was, but it took me a few months to start doing it. The Karen has often pointed out that I could go back to that—just the book rundowns—that no one’s going to arrest me if I stop with these preambles. For some reason, though, I feel like those are steps backward, that I’d be doing less. Since I’m so close to the end here, why regress?

Roy Kesey, after I covered one of his books the day the Cubs won the World Series, noted that he didn’t realize his book was about baseball or the Cubs. He was kidding, but really, I wonder what some authors think of these little diary entries that lead into their book discussion. Sometimes it’s goofy shit—I kind of regret my fake spring break debauchery week back in March of 2016—and sometimes it’s more serious. Earlier this year, I led into a review with news of my mother-in-law’s death, and then a week later, her funeral. I think every author likes reviews, but I can also picture them reading about sadness and demise and wondering, “What the fuck?”

In the end, I’ll always say, “It is what it is,” and that’s true: I can make Story366 into whatever I want. I could attach videos of me doing Jack-Ass-like stunts, go that route. I could do straight reviews. I could perform magic tricks. I could _______. But nearly eight hundred entries in, it is what it is, including today. Thanks for enduring. Now let’s talk about a book.

For today’s post, I read from Canadian author Susan E. Lloy‘s second collection, Vita, out in 2019 from Now or Never Publishing. This has been my first experience with LLoy’s writing, as I didn’t catch her first book, But When We Look Closer, and her work seems to have appeared exclusively in Candadian and European journals. What I love about Story366 is how it leads me to this kind of author, one I never would have encountered otherwise.

This is a rare occasion where I’m not covering the title story. “Vita” is the opener and is about Arthur, an older, infirmed guy who looks forward to visits from his sexy young nurse/caretaker, Hazel. She—and his morphine-type pain shot—inspires him to revisit his life as a photojournalist, as well as some surreal planes where he can assess his life, and his imminent death.

“Mama” is a flash piece, just a short paragraph, about a woman who sees her babies grow up, grow apart from her—rather maliciously—then find their way home.

I really like “The Little Bang,” about a middle-woman named Rose who begins the story thinking about the universe, the Big Bang, and various metaphysical consistencies within the universe. This leads into a meet-up with an ex, decades later, a man who broke her heart and happens to be in Canada (he’s Danish). She readies a dinner for him, and when he arrives, they get right down to it: Evaluating each other, catching each other up, and making some light accusations. Soon Rose is realizing that Gregor has grown soft and that she has only gotten better. When they inevitably hit the sack, Rose makes the titular analysis of Gregor’s prowess, bringing the story, and their reunion, to its end.

“Oh …” is about a former stripper and still-sometime escort named Annie who realizes that she’s aged out of that line of work, that she’s not going to be able to make enough money to live on very much longer. She visits a friend and former colleague, Vivian, who takes her to an adult movie set, where she’s evolved into someone behind the cameras, a more intellectual version of her former self, inspiring Annie to enter the next phase of her life.

Today I’m focusing on the longest story I read, “That Screaming Silence.” This one features Edie, a semi-successful poet who’s recently retired and moved out of the inner-city of Montreal to an isolated country house. She mostly buys the house online, but does make one visit before signing, finding the place to be charming and quiet. Since quiet is what she’s looking for, it’s perfect and she packs up for the last phase of her life.

Only when she gets there, she discovers that her neighbors, the Brodys, are a nightmare. The realtor who sold her the house did a sneaky job of covering up the fact that the Brodys are loud and obnoxious people, bent on making Edie’s life hell; it even comes out later that the realtor is a Brody cousin. They dump garbage on their property, garbage that spills onto Edie’s land, garbage like old furniture and a bag full of drowned puppies (!) that she has to pay someone to haul away. The adult sons constantly play loud music on a their “ghetto blaster,” and are revving the engines of loud machinery at all hours of the night. Worst of all, they have a flea-bitten dog tied up, a dog that barks and whimpers all day, which is both annoying and sad to Edie.

Edie starts her protest by complaining to friends and neighbors. Colleen, a local who walks her dog, agrees that it’s a shame, wondering why Edie ever bought the house, which had been on the market forever. Edie’s friend back in Toronto—who remembers Edie’s problems with her neighbors there, a hillbilly family who caused similar chaos (note: Montreal Hillbillies is the name of my next band). Eventually, Colleen just asks her why she doesn’t go over and talk to Maggi, the Brody matriarch, and reason with her. Edie agrees and heads over, bringing with her a coq au vin for good will.

I don’t want to reveal what happens when Edie visits the Brodys, as that would be revealing too much. But Edie is such a well drawn character, and very subtly, Lloy implies that maybe it’s not these noisy people who have the problem, who are the antagonists of this story.

Susan E. Lloy is particularly skilled at drawing characters in her stories in Vita. The plots are somewhat of a slow burn, not a lot of murders or car chases or the like, but certainly perpetrated by distinct, well rounded, and evolving characters. I liked meeting these people, seeing how they grew into their worlds. I enjoyed these stories today and am glad to have discovered this author.

December 1, 2020: “Camel Light” by Keith Lee Morris

Welcome to a Tuesday, Story366!

December has arrived! We’re in the last month of 2020, which hasn’t been a good year for most of us, everyone more than ready to see if we can fair better in 2021. All the experts say that we’re heading into the peak point of this pandemic, that’ll probably get worse before it gets better. It’s not like the cure is going to drop at midnight on New Year’s, meaning 2021 is going to have its share of bad days, too. But symbolically, won’t it feel like we’re in the final stretch once the ball drops? Things look good, we’re told, but good is five months away, at a minimum. I myself keep telling people we’re on the back half of this. Sometimes you just have to be affirming and encouraging, especially leading into the holidays. I don’t know what’s going to happen, when this vaccine will be available, but I know this: I can see a light at the end of this tunnel, and for today, December 1, that’s enough.

Today’s post led me to Keith Lee Morris‘ collection, Call It What You Want, out in 2010 from Tin House Books. When I got ahold of this book, I had to doublecheck that I hadn’t covered it or Morris’ other collection already, because it seems like I certainly would have by now. But no, for whatever reason, I’ve not featured Morris here, not until today. I’m not sure why that is, as I’ve been a fan of Morris’ work for a while, always enjoying the stories I’ve read in journals over the years. As I kick off this last month of Story366, I’m really glad to finally add him to the list, and of course, to have read his book today.

I could have easily featured any of the stories I read from Call It What You Want today, as all of them are good stories, stories with which I felt a small affinity. So, “Camel Light” is more of a random choice. This one’s about Rick Steuben, who has an hour alone in his house for the first time since he can remember. He thinks of all kinds of big plans, some of them monumental undertakings, but settles on sitting quietly in his chair, letting the time pass that way.

That is until he spies something under his dishwasher from across the room. He moves in to investigate and finds a cigarette, a Camel Light, just sitting there. Rick and his wife, Maggie, quit sixteen years ago, they haven’t had guests over in weeks, and his kids, a teen and a tween, seem unlikely suspects. So where did the cigarette come from?

Morris takes Rick on an introspective journey through his memories and fears, as Rick begins to analyze the possibility of each suspect more deeply. April, his fifteen-year-old daughter, doesn’t seem that likely, but as Ricks delves deeper into his thoughts, April becomes not only a possibility, but a likely perpetrator. She’s a teenager, after all, and her grades have been slipping, and she’s hanging around with a different crowd, etc.

Only Rick takes this journey with Austin, too, just eleven, but perhaps starting early. He’s definitely been in trouble in school, plus he’s a boy. It’s probably Austin, Rick figures.

By the time Rick starts contemplating Maggie, it’s pretty obvious what Morris is going, what kind of character he’s building in Rick. Rick can’t believe that Maggie would start smoking again, after all these years, so instead, his fantasizing brings in a third party, Clifton Moody, who Maggie has obviously been having an affair with. Rick tortures himself by letting this entire scenario play out in his head, from the moment Maggie and Clifton met, right up to the point of Clifton is in his house—to have sex with Maggie—dropping his cigarette in the kitchen.

So who really left the cigarette on the ground? And now that Rick has got himself all lathered up over his wife’s infidelity and his kids’ general nogoodness, what’s he going to do with Maggie’s pulling into the driveway? I won’t reveal how this story ends, as you’ll have to read it for yourself.

“Harmonica” is about Taylor Rue, a guy who walks out of a convenience store with a pack of smokes, heads down an alley toward home, and is run into by a guy on a motorcycle who pulls over and comes at Taylor. The guy wants a smoke, but is getting all up in Taylor’s face, so closely and aggressively, Taylor defends himself by putting his cherry right in the guy’s eye. To make sure the guy doesn’t get up, Taylor kicks him in the throat. The guy’s buddy pulls right up to the pair and wants some revenge, but Taylor gets away. The men give chase, but Taylor eludes them enough to circle back and steal the guy’s motorcycle. From there, he drives into town, where he abandons the bike in a parking lot and head’s into one of his old haunts. Inside, he watches an impressive act with a ridiculously good harmonica player. That musician turns out to be an old buddy of his from high school. They have a drink, and at the end of the night, the guy gives Taylor a harmonica, for old time’s sake. It’s too bad, then, when those two guys from before start following him, and that he can’t outrun him on the stolen bike.

“A Desert Island Romance” features Roger and Sharon, two people who find themselves stranded on a desert island. Both of them have someone back in the real world—Roger a fiancé and Mary a husband—but quickly resign themselves to the island for the rest of their lives and a begin a passionate affair. As the months go on, however, the couple grows apart, and one day, they start pretending they’re back in their regular lives, particularly in the French Quarter, where Roger used to work as a bartender. These fantasies get so intricate, it’s actually sad when Sharon breaks up with Roger, via a letter. There are more letters, discussing a reunion, but Sharon also acknowledges that they’re still on the island, not all that far from each other, but still drifting apart.

I’ve been a fan of Keith Lee Morris’ fiction for a long time, so it was great to read from Call It What You Want today. Morris’ men are average-seeming guys thrust into abnormal situations, their thoughts and their actions leading them into precarious jams, both real and imagined. These are well defined, lasting characters, making Morris’ book indispensable, the work of a master storyteller.

November 30, 2020: “Married Love” by Tessa Hadley

Here’s another Monday, Story366!

I never spoke about the silent concession by the current president that went down last week. I got embroiled in all kinds of holiday and holiday-related distractions. But for the first time in nearly a hundred years, there was no gracious speech, no greeting of the masses, and no real cooperation in terms of the transition efforts. He’s pardoned a turkey, taken credit for a record DOW day, and his wife has revealed what some designers did with the White House Christmas decorations. Otherwise, he’s been silent. Could we ask for a better Christmas present?

Only, the Tweets continue, the petty lawsuits continue, and his supporters continue to claim the election was fraudulent. We’ve heard all kinds of grandstanding and press-podium nonsense, but so far, nothing in terms of evidence. Forced recounts have only led to a wider margin of victory for President-Elect Biden. Oops.

I’m not sure why I’m reporting old news at this point, but as I’ve mentioned before, if this blog serves as my personal diary as a side effect to all the stories and books, then I want to note important historical events. I’m not sure if I’ll ever forget this four years, let alone this two months of limbo between hell and heaven. Maybe my boys will read these one day. Maybe someone else. But it’s just sad that the guy has to be such a bad sport, right? The outgoing president won’t have too many opportunities to save face, but this could have been a way for him to earn some self-respect, for him to overcome his narcissism. Nope. Instead, we’ll see what happens on January 20. I can barely wait.

For today’s post, I’m sneaking in another Two-Timer, Welsch author Tessa Hadley. I’d ordered today’s book for last week’s Two-Timer’s feature week, but didn’t get it in the mail until today. No reason not to cover it, anyway, so today I read from Married Love and Other Stories, out from Harper Perennial in 2012. I first covered Hadley in July of 2016 when I read from her other collection, Sunstroke, which is likely the last time I’d read any of her work. Let’s discuss this other book.

The title story, “Married Love,” focuses on Lottie, one of four adultish kids in a rather traditional family. Lottie is 19 and announces over dinner one day that she’s getting married. The real trick here is that almost nobody in her family—her parents nor her older siblings—believe her. They assume it’s a joke, as Lottie is a small, mousey woman who’s never even had a boyfriend. Lottie spends the first few pages of the story convincing her family that Edgar, her fiancé, is real. Only her younger brother, Noah, believes in her, the family member with whom she’s always been closest.

When everyone finally agrees to Lottie’s claims, they are stunned to find out that Edgar is one of her music professors at university, not to mention forty-five years her senior. They disapprove of the union, basically conversing amongst themselves how Lottie will not be marrying this perverted geezer. Lottie is insistent, however, and goes on with her plans. Her mother, Hattie, refuses to acknowledge the whole shebang and does not attend the service.

The story moves quickly from there, covering not only Lottie’s life with Edgar, but includes tidbits on the rest of the family as well. Before long, the honeymoon is indeed over and Lottie gives birth to three girls in three years, girls who steal her youth. Lottie gives up on her music, threatening to throw away her violin. On the whole, she adjusts, but doesn’t seem overly happy.

Part of this has to do with Edgar, who doesn’t spend a lot of time at home, let alone contributing around their meager apartment. Edgar actually spends a lot of time at his former house, with his ex-wife and grown son, as he has an office, it’s quiet, and he’s still paying the mortgage. Noah asks Lottie if she’s okay with that, and she says she is, but really, who could be?

Yet, Lottie never wavers in her dedication to Edgar, or that decision that changed her life. Married love seems to be a special love indeed, and I’m glad I got to meet Lottie, this hero who does what she wants, has no regrets, and doesn’t care if you judge her.

“Friendly Fire” is an introspective story about Shelley, a middle-aged woman who helps her friend, Pam, with her cleaning business. At the outset of this tale, we find Shelley waiting in the cold dark for Pam to pick her up so they can clean an entire warehouse over the course of the day. Shelley heads off to work by herself, charged with the various bathrooms and toilets, and as she scrubs, she thinks about her life, what’s led her to this point. She also considers her husband, daughter, and son, all of whom have various dramas going on in their lives; at the forefront of her mind is her son, Anthony, who is stationed in Afghanistan, keeping one of Shelley’s eyes on her phone, every call bringing a feeling of dread that something has happened to her boy.

Alec in “Journey Home” is studying art history in Venice, but is worried about his kid sister, Em, who is back on the island, not returning his calls. The two were raised by their grandparents, who have since died, leaving Alec as Em’s guardian. Em is a little bit of a wild child, so when Alec’s flight home is canceled and he’s stuck in a hotel for an extra couple of nights, he starts to panic. Eventually, Alec finds his way home, hoping to find that everything’s okay, that his selfish trip to Italy for his studies has not led to his younger sister’s doom.

Tessa Hadley writes solid stories that focus on their characters’ relationships with their families, those unchosen relationships that guide and fuel and frustrate us. Married Love is another winner from Hadley, a writer who’s had an impressive career, and because of Story366, I’ve come to know and admire.

November 29, 2020: “Bosses of Light and Sound” by Nickalus Rupert

Happy Sunday to you, Story366!

Since I started this blog back in 2016, I’ve kept a long list of story collections that I constantly add to. After a large recent purchase, that list shrunk to as small as it had been in a while. The last thirty-three slots of the year are now spoken for. Yesterday, to help make this list as complete as I could, I put one last call out on social media for books and recommendations. I got a lot of recommendations, and even a few offers of books. By the end of the day, I found that I had exceeded the number of books I’ll need, so a couple will be not appear in 2020. I see this as a good thing, considering a week ago, I used the last book on my shelf and had to go out and buy a couple just to keep going.

After this year, I will go on hiatus for a while, put my energy into other things. I need to hit the gym in a more regular and serious way. I also have a story manuscript that’s about 70 percent finished. I need to sleep more. I’ll be going up for promotion next fall, too, to full professor. Finally, I need to get back to those books I’ve loved this year, books I swore I’d finish, but didn’t because I just didn’t have the time.

I may even read a novel.

After wrapping up a Two-Timers Week yesterday, I continue on for those last thirty-three entries of the year. Today I read from Nickalus Rupert‘s brand-new collection, Bosses of Light and Sound, out from Willow Springs Books as the winner of their most recent Spokane Prize for Short Fiction. I’ve read a story or two of Rupert’s in the past, namely a short he put in SmokeLong Quarterly a few years back. As always, I’m happy to to have an entire collection in hand, to see what this author really does.

The title story, “Bosses of Light and Sound,” is the lead story and a good one. This one’s about a unnamed woman who works at the local movie theater, in the projectionist’s booth. She’s not the focus of the story, however, as the narrative is about Kelli, her disdainful coworker, with whom she’s obsessed.

Actually, we don’t know of this narrator woman right away, as the story seems like it’s being told in third person, at least for a few pages, everything a description of Kelli and what she does. Rupert slips in a we then, and a page later, the first-person takes over, still focused of Kelli, though, in the peripheral sort of way. Obsessed much? That’s the gist here, this person recounting her days with Kelli, who’s never left our hero’s head.

Kelli is not just another projectionist, but an iconoclast. She thinks she’s not only supposed to press buttons, but participate in the film experience. She starts by cutting twenty-three minutes out of a Spielberg film, A.I., because she thinks it’s going on too long and keeps her at the theater too late at night. When nobody notices this, she gets bolder, putting images in movies that aren’t supposed to be there, e.g., Daniel Day Lewis into Finding Nemo. Surprisingly, nobody notices for quite some time, not even Tina, their slightly older and considerably more alcoholic manager. The women even come to the theater when not working, just to alter the reels.

Eventually, Tina figures it out and confronts Kelli and our narrator about the messed-up films. Tina is really after the narrator—could she be intimidated by the much more confident Kelli?—but Kelli stands up and takes the fall for her actions, resulting in both women being fired. And just like that, Kelli is out the narrator’s life, leaving her to tell this tale, so many years later.

“Spy Car” is probably my favorite story of those I read, about these two guys, Walt and André, who used to be best friends until Walt stole André’s wife, Rosella. That marriage didn’t last, either, and six months after, Walt meets André for lunch to apologize. He sees that André has bought a new car, a “spy car,” a mock-up of Bond’s car from Goldeneye. The car is clearly patched together from an old Plymouth, but does seem to have gadgets like a smokescreen and oil tracks, which André demonstrates in a crazy fury. The two decide to scope out Rosella’s house, just to see her with her new husband—her and André’s therapist, Maynard. Rosella discovers them watching her, but is glad to see them and goes with the two for a ride, where the trio hashes out what happened and why. Unfortunately for Walt, he finds one more Bond device in the car, the seat ejector, and ends the story by going for a ride.

The third story I read, I have to say, is pretty polarizing for me. It’s called “Aunt Job,” and on one hand, is a fun and creative story, and on the other, I wonder how this story got published. This one takes place in an alternate world, one where boys, on their fourteenth birthday, go through a coming-of-age ceremony of sorts, one that crosses them into manhood. The ceremony? An aunt from their mom’s side gives him a hand job. To make it even more weird, it’s done in front of the whole family, and often, it’s also recorded and/or livestreamed (though a screen blocks out the actual intimate details). The story might be commenting on bizarre customs and how they can stick around—think “The Lottery”—and/or it might be a metaphor for the strange and terrible mystery that is sex for a boy that age. It’s also well written and entertaining to see this kid fret over this weird custom, following him in the days leading up to his birthday. But, yeah, it’s a weird plotline to have to think about, and not weird in the way I usually like weird. Rupert even admits, via his characters, that if the situation was gender-reversed—an uncle servicing a young niece—we wouldn’t be having this conversation because that story wouldn’t exist. Do I recommend you read this to judge for yourself? Well, it never hurts to read anything, I believe, and I’ll leave it at that.

I do like what I’ve read in Nickalus Rupert’s debut collection, Bosses of Light and Sound. His stories read as well as any stories I’ve had this year. One kind of gives me the heebie jeebies, sure, but this is a good book, one that puts his obvious talents on display.

November 28, 2020: “I Hold a Wolf by the Ears” by Laura van den Berg

Greetings to you, Story366!

Today I conclude what will be the last Two-Timers Week at Story366, weeks where I cover authors for a second time, for a different book. I have all of my books lined up through the end of the year, and none of them are authors I’ve featured here before. I committed to five such weeks to this project the year, plus a few random entries in between. So, nearly forty authors have been featured twice on this blog so far. I’m glad that I did so, though a tiny part of me thinks those forty slots could have been used for new authors—there’s plenty of books I haven’t covered and won’t get to this year. Overall, I have zero regrets. I’ll keep doing Story366 after this year—though not daily, probably never again—but if I come across a book and it strikes me, I’ll feature it here. Plenty of days ahead of me, plenty of books left to read.

The concept of Two-Timers has led me to new books by some of my favorite story writers, including today’s author, Laura van den Berg. She and I both had books on Dzanc in its early days, and since, her career has been nothing short of meteoric. I covered her follow-up collection, The Isle of Youth, back in February of 2016; I was pleased to buy her newest, I Hold a Wolf by the Ears, out this year from FSG, at an indie bookstore today (on small-business Saturday, no less). I enjoyed reading from this book, as I’ve enjoyed all of van den Berg’s work to date.

The opening story is “Last Night” and is about a young woman who has been committed to an asylum after numerous suicide attempts. There she works through enough of her problems so that she’s okay enough to be released. On her last night, she and her roommates sweet-talk a guard into letting them out so they can take a walk. There, one of her roomies puts her head down on the tracks, possibly to kill herself (her roommates have been committed for the same reason that she had been), a train heading their way. van den Berg at times gets metafictional, the narrator aware of her storytellingness, sometimes questioning the facts of story, making us question them as well.

“Cult of Mary” is about another young woman who has traveled to Italy with her mother, on the trip of her lifetime. Since her mother has recently had a stroke and is not well enough to travel alone, our hero jumps aboard for the ride. They are part of a tour, a tour that leaves much to be desired, but still allows for an investigation into church politics, the nature of religion, and our narrator’s relationship with her mother.

My favorite story is the title story, “I Hold a Wold by the Ears,” again about an American woman traveling in Italy. The story begins with the woman, Margot, taxiing up a mountain to a remote, scenic village, where she’ll meet her sister, who bought the pair of tickets before her husband divorced her, leaving room for our protagonist. A free trip to Italy is a free trip to Italy, and Margot goes despite having very little money and a stack of credit card debt.

Sadly, as soon as Margot arrives in the village, Louise, her sister, calls and says she isn’t coming, that she’s still in Rome, and … the phone call abruptly ends there. Margot is horrified, first that she’s traveled all this way and is suddenly alone, then that she has very little money for expenses, and lastly, that her sister might be in some sort of trouble. She dials Louise constantly while on the trip, leaving messages, and eventually, turning to unlikely resources to find her sister.

Mostly, though, the story is centered on what Margot does with her time in this picturesque little town. She immediately meets Fillipo, the hotel front desk clear/concierge/manager, the only member of the staff who speaks English—or so he claims—making him her one and only contact. He asks to see her passport, saying he needs a copy of her picture, but when the copier doesn’t work, he stores it in an envelope and says he’ll give it back to her later, after he fixes the problem. Then the ATM eats her card, the last one with any funds available. This leaves Margot alone in a less-than-perfect hotel room, with no resources and no ability to leave.

Louise’s trip was doubling as a conference, and Margot attends the mixer, taking Louise’s name tag so she can get free food and drinks. She drinks too many wines, then is approached by a man in the lobby who has had too many himself. The man thinks Margot is Louise, then starts to kiss her, then proceeds to have sex with her, right there in the hotel lobby (though off to the side somewhere). Margot, who’d been purposely celibate for a while, poses as her sister, in her mind, for the event. It’s over really before it begins, and Margot shuffles back to the hotel, disappointed in her choices.

Margot has a series of run-ins and other adventures that complicate both her trip and her relationship with herself. She is worried about Louise, but can’t travel to look for her. She calls her ex-brother-in-law for help, though he doesn’t pick up. She also shares an interesting, horrible story about a man back in Minneapolis who plagued the city, randomly slapping women in the face and then running off, a serial incident that goes on six months before the man is caught. She later runs into the man from the conference again, this time both of them sober, and they have to reckon what they did, the man mistaking Margot for her sister and Margot letting him. Eventually, Margot has a confrontation with Filippo about her passport, which he’s stolen to trade for a marzipan lamb (which is another story altogether).

I like “I Hold a Wolf by the Ears,” the title story form the book of the same name, Laura van den Berg’s third collection of stories (adding to two novels). The characters here seem lost, depending on others to guide them home, only these others are even less up to the task than van den Berg’s heroes. These are innovative, gorgeous stories that see its characters work through their inner demons, allowing them to cope with the outer world for a little bit longer. This is another impressive offering from van den Berg, whose career has been the definition of impressive, with so much more to come.

November 27, 2020: “The Killer’s Dog” by Gary Fincke

Hello, Story366!

So, it’s Black Friday, meaning all the stores are crazy-busy with shoppers and they finally turn a profit for the year. I’m not sure in the time of coronavirus that this is happening, and it’s sad. I went to work at the Scout tree lot today, which is in the far corner of the mall parking lot, and got a good view of traffic going in and out. I don’t think anything was open at midnight (let alone yesterday), as my shift started at nine this morning and saw an employee opening the doors to Dillard’s at that time. There were a dozen people waiting outside, not in lawn chairs, not pushing each over, and not sprinting toward that price-slashed blouse or door-buster perfume. They politely and calmly walked inside and the employee shut the door and followed them in, not flattened to the sidewalk underneath their thunderous trampling.

This is Dillard’s, however, a high-end department department store like Macy’s or … Macy’s, and I’m not sure they have anything remotely resembling door-busters. I think those are reserved for places that sell electronics, people hoping to get that giant flatscreen for a couple hundred bucks. Since I’ve never been shopping on Black Friday, I don’t know what else people get. Are they all hoping for TVs, gaming systems, and phones? Or do they just grab anything?

I’ve always been skeptical of Black Friday, as I don’t really shop, don’t look for sales, and have never been interested in fighting crowds, lines, or traffic. But in 2020, when so much is hanging in the balance for these stores—the ones that are still open, anyway—I was rooting for them. The lot was busy today, as it always is on Black Friday, so I wasn’t watching all that closely. But by the time I left at two, the parking spaces were starting to fill up a little, and I had to actually wait for a good amount of pedestrians to clear out before getting out of the lot. Nobody’s getting rich today, but I was glad to see some traffic, citizens out buying things, these stores perhaps having a chance at staying open, surviving the year.

Of course, nobody wants too big of crowds, as there still is that coronavirus in the air, and crowds are a bad idea. Most people I met today were wearing masks—save just a couple of rebels, sharing their freedom with the world—and nobody I met got particularly close to me. So maybe this was the perfect storm today, busy but not crowded? Time will tell, but by then, I hope we’re sold out of Christmas trees and I’m not around to watch.

Today I’m revisiting a book I’ve read before, though only in ARC form, Gary Fincke‘s The Killer’s Dog, out in 2017 from Elixir Press as a winner of their Elixir Press Fiction Award. This is a book that I wrote a blurb for a few years back, but since I’m in a Two-Timers Week, I really wanted to feature Fincke—a writer I very much admire—here again. I first wrote about Fincke’s work at Story366 in January of 2016 when I read his book A Room of Rain. I’m more than happy to be reading from this newer book again here and to be sharing my thoughts about it with you.

“The Killer’s Dog” is about Frank Fawcett, a late-twenties guy who manages a McDonald’s and has no illusions that life is going to get any better for him. He lives with his girlfriend, Elise, who works the night shift, he the day, and sometimes they go a week at a time without seeing each other.

One day Frank’s sister shows up with a German shepherd, a dog that belongs to a friend of hers, Hutch. Hutch has been in the news all week because a missing couple was just found on his property, murdered and buried. Maureen, the sister, is taking care of the dog while Hutch is “away,” and Frank is more than quick to point out the job will likely be permanent. He’s been watching the stories about Hutch on the news and the police are investigating more disappearances and searching his property more thoroughly, as Hutch might be a serial killer. And Frank’s sister has his dog.

Frank becomes more and more obsessed with Hutch and his case, continually in the local and even national news. He even runs into Hutch’s girlfriend at a concert, who recognizes him from a barbecue that Frank attended the one time he met Hutch. The girlfriend insists that Hutch has a good enough lawyer to get him off for self-defense, though doesn’t ever say if she believes he’s innocent. Frank realizes that at the time he met Hutch, he’d already killed the couple, very recently, and probably had that on his mind as they chatted and posed for pictures together.

Maureen employs Franks to help with the dog, which Frank does reluctantly. The dog is trained, obeying every command as if in the military, a fact that both impresses and scares Frank. This doesn’t keep him from going to Hutch’s property, to check it out, seeing if there are any more unmarked graves scattered about the vast property. When he hears a dog bark in the distance, he high-tails it back to his car, assuming it’s the dog, sensing his presence and coming to rip out his throat.

Frank eventually finds a use for the dog, taking it on walks and having it obey commands, just to impress some women, so there’s that. Yet throughout the story, there’s this implied contrast between himself and Hutch, Hutch so large and powerful, confident, while Frank knows his limitations. It’s a fascinating idea for a story, knowing a killer, and Fincke executes it marvelously.

The first story in the book, “Where We Live Now,” features Ellen Stark, a woman who lives a few doors down from a church that experiences a shooting. A man walks in during a service and guns down his wife, then is tackled, but the whole incident has Ellen, but especially her neighbors, in an uproar and on alert. Ellen navigates through the reactions and overreactions to the murder, but is morbidly curious about the situation, about the shooter. It’s not unlike the title story in that vein, being obsessed with acts of violence, projecting them onto yourself, as Ellen can’t help herself from doing.

“Gettysburg” begins with a cannonball shooting through the wall of Harold’s kitchen and landing at his feet. His neighbor, Kincaid, comes inside to apologize, but Harold is furious. To make up for it, Kincaid gives Harold a Civil War reenactment uniform—Union blue—and says he can come to the next event and shoot him (a rebel regular). Harold’s wife talks him into going, and when he’s there, has a much different experience than he’d bargained for.

I’m glad I revisited The Killer’s Dog today and am featuring Gary Fincke here again. Fincke is a master storyteller, shaping his tales around his characters’ impressively developed personalities and voices. This is just the latest edition of his fine, compelling tales, and I hope it’s not too long before we get another.

November 26, 2020: “Fasten Your Meat Belts” by David James Keaton

Happy Thanksgiving, Story366!

Today the family and I had a fantastic Thanksgiving. I got up early to finish commenting on a couple of stories—I was so behind—and then bake and clean up the dining room. I got through all that, the jewel in that crown a pumpkin cheesecake, which was absolutely devine. The Karen did most of the rest of the cooking—I got the cranberry sauce out of the can, however—but put together a solid dining room table setting. Here’s a couple of shots of the table, then the same table, only complete with spread:

It’s good to keep in mind that we probably only had dinner here because we couldn’t travel, couldn’t see our family. That sucks donkey for sure, but I’m glad that we did the smart thing and every single one of my siblings did the same. I would have loved to see my mom and at least half of my siblings (you know who you are …), but I’m just as happy not getting violently ill and upending my life—if I would happen to survive—for at least another hurdle in this crazy time.

As soon as we started dinner, we asked the burning question of everyone at the table: What are you thankful for? Our kids said they are happy to have us, which made my year, and they also said they’re happy for that dinner (77 percent of which is in plastic containers in the fridge). I’m the one that jumped in with the I’m-glad-we-didn’t-get-Covid-yet answer, and everyone just nodded. Then we feasted.

So, stay safe out there. I think we’re on the back end of this. If you got through today doing the right thing, you can make it the rest of the time. Here’s to next year with the whole family instead.

Today I continue with a Two-Timers Week at Story366, weeks where I cover authors for a second time, for a different collection. Today my Two-Timer is David James Keaton, an old student of mine at BG (though I think he’s way older than me …), a writer I covered in February of 2016 for his first collection, Fish Bites Cop. Today I read from his latest book, Our Pool Party Bus Forever Days: Road Stories, out in 2018 from Red Room Press. Keaton has a wicked sense of humor, a macabre vision of the world, and a penchant for movie references, back-and-forth dialogue, and getting lost on tangents, adding to his stories’ crossover into crime, horror, sexploitation, confrontation, animal expiration, and political jabs. I had a blast reading these stories, so let’s go over a few.

Keaton starts with a long introduction, listing, with detailed explanation, his favorite car chases in movies, which he separates into different categories. He touches on the all the big ones, from Bullitt to Blues Brothers, but has a special place in his heart for the Mad Max movies, which are all about car chases (and sometimes all car chases). I can’t say that any of this is fiction—unless he’s lying and he’s never seen these movies, which is always possible.

“The Ear Eater of Jasper County” is about an impromptu meeting of monster enthusiasts who meet in a gas station to share monster run-in stories and photos, but also happens to be filmed by a Bigfoot-hunting reality TV crew. There’s all kinds of recognizable monsters here, from chupacabras to Nessie. Our narrator, however, has a thing in a cage that likes to rip the ear off of farm animals—probably to eat?—and it gets loose in the station and well what else do you need to know?

“Movies for Milkweed” is a love story about a young filmmaker who falls love with a woman, and in a different sort of way, what else do you need to know?

The young girl in “Turtle Cake,” Bolita Ramirez, makes booby-trapped turtle sculptures out of various metal parts like helmets and bike chains, lures for assholes who like to run over turtles in the middle of the road. The girl hides spikes and other nastiness inside, just to see if she can blow the tires, or worse. Worse happens when a local boy is thrown from his car and killed, though this doesn’t impede Bolita in the least.

This brings us to our featured story of the day, what I would call the quintessential David James Keaton story, “Fasten Your Meat Belts.” Oddly, when I jumped ahead to this piece, I’d just eaten Thanksgiving dinner, and was sitting back in the couch, thinking that Fasten Your Meat Belts was a reference to eating to much meat—which I’d just accomplished—so I was thinking that I’d run across a good theme story for today’s holiday.

Nope. This one’s about a guy who arrives early at a Prince concert—he’s a big fan—and steps into one of the Port-a-Johns lined up on the outskirts of the concourse. Already, we have Prince and public urination, checking a couple of Keaton boxes.

From there, our guy overhears some guys in neighboring commodes, talking about this and that. He’s nosy as hell—and not going anywhere—so he listens in, the other guys talking loud enough so they can hear each other from booth to booth.

The conversation eventually gets to the fact that one of the guys has two penises, two working penises, which of course catches the attention of our hero. He goes from nosy to involved, insinuating himself into the conversation, wanting to know the mechanics and logistics of how this could possibly work. All by yelling to the other guys in the Port-a-Johns next to his.

At this point, you might know why the story is called “Fasten Your Meat Belts,” and that it has nothing to do with too much protein on a national holiday.

From there, our guy has to see it, or at least see the man in question. The story takes a slight twist when he exits his stall and sees Matt Fink, none other than Dr. Fink, Revolution keyboardist (I’m a Prince fan, but had to look that one up). Does Dr. Fink have two dicks? Or did he just happen to walk by when the actual two-dicked guy left his toilet? Did a writer actually come up with this story and publish it in a literary journal and a book? Yes, he did, and that writer is David James Keaton.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read the old overhear-a-port-a-potty-conversation-about-a-guy-with-two-penises-who-might-be-a-famous-musician-story, but David James Keaton has dug it up and has made it his own; his version is fresh, making me see the trope from a new perspective. And that’s what he seems to do in all his work, most recently in Our Pool Party Bus Forever Days: Road Stories, his latest. I always enjoy reading this guy’s work because I know I’m going to get something original, crazy, and so diabolically creative, it scares me I connect so well with the material. Keaton’s one of a kind. I wish I could take some credit for what he does, but he was like this before I ever got ahold of him, and has only gotten better since.

November 25, 2020: “Fowler’s Lake” by Peter Orner

Hey hey hey, Story366!

So, as I’ve been describing lately, it’s time for the Scout tree lot. We’d set up the mechanics of the lot over this past weekend, all the fencing and spikes and pallets, along with the signage and lights and everything else we needed to get going. Today we drilled and placed and priced all the trees—eighty to start out with—then sat around for ninety or so minutes for a soft opening. Since we’re set up in a mall parking lot, we got some light traffic today, people who like having a Christmas tree up for Thanksgiving. The lot opens hard on Friday morning, and I’ll be there, ready for the barrage of Black Friday shoppers … or whatever the 2020 version of that will be in Springfield, Missouri.

So I carried trees today, drilled holes in their trunks, and sawed off fresh cuts with a chain saw. It’s drastically different from what I normally do, read and type all day, so I feel a exhilarated, albeit tired. It’s kind of a bummer that my busiest three weeks of the teaching year coincide with this event, but hey, when I’m stressed out over grading and tabulating, it’s good to get outside and exert myself physically. I pretty much jumped on this post the moment I walked in the door, and had finished commenting on a story a few minutes before walking out of it. So, a balancing act of not only braun vs. brain, but also my schedule, making sure I have enough time to do everything. As always, I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, wish me luck!

Story366 continues on as well, and right now I’m smack-dab in the middle of a Two-Timers Week, a week where I’m covering authors for a second time, for a different book. Today Peter Orner is our Two-Timer, me having covered another collection of his, Esther Stories, back in September of 2016. For this post, I read from Maggie Brown & Others, out in 2019 from Little, Brown. I’ve always liked Orner’s work, so I’m glad to be featuring him again, to be reading this much-heralded collection from last year, and to be able to share what I’ve experienced with you.

Esther Stories is an interrelated collection of stories, taking place across decades in the mid-twentieth century. The jacket info says that Maggie Brown & Others is interrelated as well. Truthfully, I’ve read ten or so stories from this collection—all two to five pages long—and I haven’t seen a character overlap yet. Nor, I should note, have I met Maggie Brown. I hope to read the rest of this collection soon, but just FYI, I will not be speaking to the connectedness of this book, nor offer any insight as to who Maggie Brown could be.

I love everything I read from the book, anyway, Orner’s characters and their predicaments so darn engaging. He has the power to establish his people and their problems almost immediately, drawing you through the rest of the story, to see what happens, to see if these people get through whatever it is that’s irking them. It was late by the time I to this, but I ended up reading more stories than I’d planned, simply because they’re so good and I couldn’t stop.

The book is cut up into different sections, sections that do seem to organize the stories—over fifty of them—accurately. The first section is “Come Back to California” and I read several stories from it, all of them taking place in the Golden State, including the opener, “The Deer.” It’s about a woman who watches a mountain lion chase a dear into a swamp, then give up when the water got too deep. The deer, however, is stuck out in the water, in the mud, and our hero tries to find help to get the deer out, but realized it’s too late, leaving her with a lasting, horrible memory.

“Tomales Baby (Emily)” is about Emily, a woman is hosting Thanksgiving—how timely!—for her husband and his grown children. Pictures of her husband’s dead wife, the children’s mother, still populate the house, a ghost that haunts her. She feels like a stranger in her own home but comes across some comforting thoughts.

The man in “Naked Man Hides” is arrested, out on the road in his birthday suit, and finds the situation funny. His family, however, does not, as they remember what he doesn’t, the state he was in, when arrested, so hopped-up on goofballs, for so long, that indecent exposure is the least of the charges he’ll be facing.

The story I’m focusing on today, “Fowler’s Lake,” is also in this first section. This one’s about a young woman who heads out on a late August afternoon to swim in a little swimming hole up on a mountain, a man-made lake that’s only warm enough one month out of the year. Accompanying her is her beau, Billy.

When they pull up, the see only one other person, a very pregnant woman whose car blew a tire out on the road. The woman would like the couple to help her, fix her tire. When Billy declares this impossible—the woman doesn’t have a spare and Billy’s won’t fit—they agree to drive her into town to get help, only after they swim. They promise to swim for only a half an hour, asking the woman to join them, but she declines, choosing to watch them from shore.

Our hero and Billy swim, occasionally catching glances of the pregnant woman staring out at them. Time slips away and the couple is done with their swim closer to an hour later. The pregnant woman, however, is nowhere to be seen, but the couple searches, anyway, calling out to her. They assume she left, finding another ride, and move on.

Three days later, however, our protagonist and narrator see a news report, declaring the pregnant woman missing. She and Billy go to the police and explain what they know. We don’t, however, get a firm answer to what happens to the woman.

Our narrator, however, feels as if the woman was watching them as they searched for her. She describes the scene in detail, believing the woman to be hiding for a particular reason, a reason I won’t reveal here.

After that first section, I skipped around, reading a piece from each of the other parts (except the last, which is a novella, which I haven’t gotten to yet). “The Return” chronicles a woman’s tale of her long-lost brother returning to her life, calling her, out of the blue, for the first time in fifteen years. So much has happened since he’d left, including everyone else in their family dying. The brother doesn’t want to hear about that, though. He only wants stories from their childhood, nostalgia of happiness, some of which our narrator makes up, her brother none the wiser.

“Speech at the Urinal, Drake Hotel, Chicago, December 1980,” is about a young man recounting his father’s wisdom. His father held on to old values and hated how the world had changed—hippies and drugs and whatnot—explaining to him how to be a man, and what was good and just in the world (which seems like sketchy advice, especially now).

“Erwin and Pauline” is a sad love story about a man who is found dead, floating in the Chicago River, and how he got there. It’s told by a niece or a nephew (Uncle Erwin is how he’s referred to), explaining how Erwin was a simple janitor who married a much-younger teacher from the school where he worked, who was surprisingly into their uncle. That marriage ends, but once Erwin dies, Auntie Pauline returns to pay her respects, suspicion abound.

“Rhinebeck” is about a man who goes into marriage counseling with his wife, visiting a therapist in her home. The therapist’s husband, a retired therapist, sits in on the sessions (for some reason), a couple doing couples therapy. Things go as therapy goes until the husband therapist calls our narrator, the husband, with a grave warning about his wife.

Every story I read in Maggie Brown & Others is a story I wanted to be longer, to spend more than just a few pages with these characters, in these predicaments, all of them so compelling, so well crafted. Peter Orner is a master of the short-short, understanding just what the arc is in a story that short, and how much he can cram in. This is such a great book, I can’t wait to get back to it and finish it off, meet more of these fascinating people and watch them go.