April 9, 2020: “You Will Never Be Forgotten” by Mary South

It’s Thursday, Story366, and that means it’s Thursday!

My family and I do a lot of things to occupy ourselves at home during this crisis. A lot of involves working and doing schoolwork. We have settled into patterns, have accomplished a lot, and for the most part, are living productive lives.

But it can’t be all work, as we’d go rather mad. I’ve extended our chores to the outside and I must say, our property is looking better than it has since we moved in. We’ve also been cooking a lot—the oldest boy has taken to that task—and we try to go for walks every day. The Karen is uncommonly good at coming up with new ideas, though, preoccupations that occupy us together, as a family unit; it’s easy for us, even in confinement, to spread ourselves out, be alone. Karen has us, for one, out on the front porch or back deck, howling at the moon every night at eight. I’m not sure where she got this idea, but for over a week, we’ve gone outside, pointed our gullets at the sky, and made like wolves. It’s pretty funny when someone’s walking by or out on their own front porch, the looks on their faces, wondering what the weirdos at 723 are doing now. Now, we’re howling.

The oldest boy is reading Tom Sawyer for English so we’re all reading it together, a chapter a day, out loud—I’ve never read it before somehow, so it’s about time. We have dinner, every night, together at the table. At the outset, sort of in the place of grace, we all have to say what our favorite part of the day has been—it’s easy for everyone to say, Right now! Dinner, together! We’ve outlawed that response, though, making everyone declare their second-favorite moment. (Mine often involve naps.)

So, we’re not only coping, we’re becoming a better family (and better canines, too). I’m not sure how long we can keep this up, especially when the stay-at-home order is lifted and we get back to the former normal. I’m not in any hurry, though. At least not for that reason.

Today I read from Mary South‘s brand-new collection, You Will Never Be Forgotten, just out from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. South’s work has been all over lately, the title story, today’s focus, having appeared in The New Yorker earlier this year. It was time for me to see what all the buzz was about, so here we go.

I would never accuse a writer, especially not one with a published collection, of being a slacker. I don’t think any story, be they super-short or relatively straight-forward, is easy to write. I can, however, recognize when someone’s work is the opposite. That’s the feeling I get from reading the stories in You Will Never Be Forgotten. There’s a lot of research put into all these stories, firstly, unless South has an encyclopedic memory for intricate, bizarre facts. Next, South is thorough, as thorough as any writer I’ve come across, in exploring each of her characters whims, instincts, and feelings. These stories, high in concept, could easily have been three-to-four-page shorts, the conceits revealed and expended in a flourish (like I would do). South, however, leaves no personal stone unturned, exhausting every possible notion. I really loved settling into her prose, which eloquently and completely examines each of her characters, each of her ideas.

The lead story, “Keith Prime,” presents a world where infants are kept in departments at a corporation, sorted by their first names and cared for by specialists until they are chosen to move on. Is this the beforelife South is describing? Her own version of the stork myth? Where babies come from? She never goes that far or makes it that simple. We just know our protagonist works in Keiths, and after decades, finds herself particularly fond of one Keith, one with a mole, one that—uh-oh—wakes up before he is chosen. The rest of the story is an examination of parenthood, society, and the self; it is both tragic and clever at the same time. What an opener.

“Frequently Asked Questions About Your Craniotomy” presents itself as an information pamphlet, exactly the kind indicted by its title. It starts off straight forwardly, presenting legitimate questions (in bold), followed by long answers that work to inform the average brain surgery candidate. Eventually, South derivates from the expected and the questions become less about surgeries and more about the “speaker” of the questions and answers, taking on the persona of a widowed mother coping with her existence. It’s absurd and fun and makes me want to have my head cut open, too.

This led me to the title story, “You Will Never Be Forgotten.” This story is about some unnamed characters, specifically “the woman,” our protagonist, and “the rapist,” her antagonist. The woman has been raped by the rapist, after meeting up on a dating app, the rapist not taking no for an answer. He forced his way onto her on his bed, then threw her torn panties in her face before kicking her out. The woman, however, did not turn him in, did not seek out help, and did not get a rape kit, decisions she soon regrets.

The story focuses on a couple of different fronts. Firstly, there’s the woman’s obsession with the rapist, as she begins to more or less stalk him. She follows him around, monitors his social media, and makes casual contact with his acquaintances. He’s a suave, rapist-type, it seems, a guy who has a lot of one-night stands—be they rapey or consentual—and drinks craft beers with his bros at kitschy pubs in-between. The woman gets to know him almost too well, torturing herself with the details of his life, which are, obviously, not affected by his having raped her.

The other storyline involves her job. She works for the world’s largest search engine as a ninja, a hacker who eliminates distasteful, graphic content from the web. She specializes in public mass shootings, so she spends a great deal of her day watching the most awful things on her computer, people killing other people, then usually, themselves. She doesn’t even know her coworkers’ names, as they go by their handles, monikers like BabyJesusUpchuck and Cunty. Her boss calls himself Shady Dave. For a person with extensive psychological baggage, the woman has perhaps chosen the least-chill occupation imaginable.

Most of the story has the woman following the rapist, and eventually, the rapist’s girlfriend. It’s appalling to the woman that the rapist can have a girlfriend, let alone one that’s as beautiful, successful, and as smitten with the rapist as the rapist’s girlfriend appears to be. The rapist’s girlfriend is the gateway to confrontation, the woman decides, and corners her in the bathroom of a fancy restaurant. What starts off as a friendly warning to the rapist’s girlfriend backfires, leading the woman to make an even riskier move to confront her rapist.

I won’t go any further into the plot: You can click the link to the story above and find out what happens for yourself. What’s interesting, though, is how it becomes questionable as to what the woman’s motive is. Surely, she wants the rapist to get what he deserves. Yet, nothing she does particularly inhibits him in any way. Mostly, she becomes a true stalker rather than a righteous victim, her obsession switching from revenge to undeniable fascination. It’s a sick sort of Stockholm syndrome, a fascinating and thorough explanation of one particular reaction to such a violent atrocity. Maybe it’s how the woman’s PTSD has manifested itself—I think that’s a likely answer—or maybe that’s an oversimplification. In any case, I sped through this story, all thirty pages, South compelling me to do so with her thoroughness and endless creativity.

I immensely enjoyed this debut, Mary South’s stories complicated, well executed, and ultimately, undeniably entertaining. You Will Never Be Forgotten is one of my early entries for best books of 2020, a collection that I want to finish, want to teach from, want to revisit again. I highly recommend you get on board.

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April 8, 2020: “Adult Teeth” by Jeremy T. Wilson

Happy day to you, Story366!

Today my brother called and told me my mom wanted to watch The Two Popes, that Netflix movie where the two popes fight it out or something. The problem was that my Netflix account—which I’d logged into last summer on their TV—was asking to be logged into again. My brother, to note, has never had an email account, so when he had to start by typing in my email address—mczyzniejewski@missouristate.edu—he was a little lost. First off, never having logged into an email before in his life, even he was surpised at how freakishly long my address is; I was given this address when I came to MSU, and when I protested, the techie told me that was my email and that was that. Secondly, when we got to the middle and I told my brother “at,” he didn’t know what I was talking about. Literally, he’d never used an at symbol in his life and didn’t know what I was talking about. I had to describe it to him, a squiggly small A with a circle around it. A long while later, we got him logged in and my mom got to watch her pope movie. I hope she liked it.

What I’m getting at with this post today is how we take the technology, which so many of us are so dependent on, for granted. I’ve said time and time again here that we’re lucky in my immediate family, that this stay-at-home stuff speaks to our strengths: more time for reading, writing, blogging, streaming, and doing our thing online. My brother today reminded me of all those people who don’t live in that world, who never have, and considering they don’t own a computer or a smart phone, they probably never will. It would have been easy to laugh at my bro for not knowing the @ symbol. Really, it’s a testament to him, and my mom, for surviving so long without knowing why we even have that on keyboards—even I’m unsure why it was on typewriters or computers before we needed it for email addresses. I’ve also noted in these times that we’re lucky we have luxuries like mail service, grocery stores, and the internet. My mom and brother only use one of those (grocery stores) and they’re getting along just fine. So, I’m not laughing about the @ symbol question: He’s stronger than I am, I have a feeling, because he’d be just fine if all this went dark. Not sure I would.

For today’s post, I read from Jeremy T. Wilson‘s 2018 debut, Adult Teeth, out from Tortoise Books. Wilson’s work was unknown to me before today, so into unknown waters I jumped.

The first story in the collection, “Welcome to Gorilla City,” is about Sara. This is a busy story, a few different plotlines going at once, something that Wilson handles well. Sara is trying to hold together her marriage—her husband is about to go to prison for some white-collar no-nos—and raise three kids. At the same time, she’s fascinated by a local graffiti artists who’s painting exotic zoo animals on the local water towers.

“Trash Days” is about LeAnne, a thirty-something lawyer, whose husband, Walt, another lawyer, has been laid off. LeAnne continues lawyering while Walt gets into all kinds of hobbies, everything from a cooking blog, to raising tomotoes, to coaching junior high hoops. When LeAnne fines some long blond hairs in the house, she suspects an affair. Or, Walt might have bought that sex doll he joked about buying. It’s telling, by the way, that LeAnne is much more concerned about the doll than an actual woman.

“Piss-ants” is about Skip, who’s gone to his friend’s cabin to bring him home after he’s left his wife. Instead of convincing Martin to come back, he instead stays at the cabin, fishing, putting one on, and getting into a scuffle about said left wife.

I lastly read the title story, “Adult Teeth.” This is yet another story that deals with marital strife, which seems to be another of Wilson’s strength, if not a theme. “Adult Teeth” features an unnamed guy who takes to jogging behind a beautiful woman every day, keeping his distance so as not to seem weird … though we as the reader know it’s pretty weird, how he waits for her to run by every day, how he describes her, etc. This story also features a middle-aged married guy with a lot of time on his hands, though this one’s from his perspective, sort of the opposite of “Trash Day.” Anyway, one day while stalking jogging behind the woman, our hero is nearly run over by a car, but is saved at the last second by the woman’s elderly … father? grandfather? … who’s always sitting on the porch, smoking. Our jogger/stalker gets up, notes that his savior doesn’t have any teeth, and jogs back home.

Home is not going well, as our protagonist and his wife just lost a baby, miscarried late into the third trimester. His wife does what she can to cope, while our guy … chases other women through the neighborhood in the guise of fitness. He tells her about the near-death experience, to which she replies, “I told you not to run with earbuds.” These folks seem like maybe they’re over each other at this point. But who can blame them, with what they’ve been through?

While his wife grieves in her own way, our guy actually grieves, too: Since losing his daughter seven months ago, he pretty much acts like she was born and all is well. He reads the baby-care websites, sits in the vacant nursery, and worst of all, pictures his daughter in their house, at the appropriate age, treats her as if she’s there. So, maybe he’s not merely a creep—I’ll cut him some slack because he seems pretty messed up.

Thinking about his daughter—heck, spending time with her—makes our hero decide to pay the old toothless man back for saving his life. It’s an existential moment, perhaps, Dostoevsky facing the firing squad. He goes to the man’s house—the man can only speak Spanish—and has a kid at the household relay that he wants to buy the old man some teeth (all the while keeping an eye out for the attractive jogger woman). The old man doesn’t want teeth. At first he wants booze and cigars and a Playboy. When our guy won’t buy him that, the man asks for a parrot.

Our guy, who seems to have time and money, goes to the pet store and buys a $1500 parrot named Lefty. He brings it back to the toothless old man’s house, finding the attractive woman there, along with the old man, who looks very happy—as happy as he can look without teeth—to see this bird. And that’s where I’ll stop explaining what happens.

I mentioned this before, but Jeremy T. Wilson is good at fitting an array of plotlines and details into his stories in Adult Teeth. He concocts multiple concerns to occupy his characters, making these stories more complex than they read. Sometimes these concerns play out, like the sex doll joke in “Trash Days,” while sometimes they don’t; at the start of “Welcome to Gorilla City,” there’s a longish sequence where Sara and her family spend some time at her mom’s house. It doesn’t play directly into the story—kind of like the beautiful jogger woman in “Adult Teeth—but it builds the narrative, adds to the characters, and keeps everyone busy. This technique makes Wilson’s stories interesting, and at the same time, fun to read—I got the sense that anything could happen, at any time, and often, it did. Reading this book was a more effortless experience, Wilson able to conjure that effect, time after time.

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April 7, 2020: “Bull” by Kathy Anderson

Happy Tuesday, Story366!

Today I had the absolute treat of taking part in a SmokeLong Quarterly online party, using Zoom, where thirty-forty writers convened for nearly three hours of chats and readings. As I serve as the Interviews Editor for SLQ, I’ve probably corresponded with all of these folks at some point. I’ve also read their work and gotten to know them, or at least how they respond to five quick questions when asked about their work. It was nice to put faces to a lot of those people, but also to chat with them—in-between the readings we had break-out discussion sessions. I got to gab with some interesting folks, folks like Pingmei Lan, Jules Archer, James Claffey, Maria Alejandra Barrios, Siamak Vissoughi, and Amy Barnes. Got to chat a bit with people I knew already, too, like Christopher Allen, Helen Rye, Jennifer Wortman, and Moon City authors Kim Magowan and Michelle Ross. All in all, a great experience. I might just like this Zoom thing.

For today’s post, I read from Kathy Anderson‘s collection, Bull and Other Stories, out in 2016 as the winner of Autumn House Press‘s 2015 Autumn House Fiction Prize. Yet again, this was a new author to me, sending me into the book fresh.

I started with the lead and title story, “Bull,” about this teenaged kid named Josh. Josh wants to get a tattoo, but his parents won’t let him. A pretty basic conflict made all the more interesting by the fact the story, or at lest the first two-thirds of it, takes place during a family therapy session involving Josh and his parents. Josh’s rationalization for getting the tattoo? His dad, Heidi, has just gone through a full-on sex-reassignment operation, and Josh figures if Heidi can have his penis removed, he can get a tattoo.

The perspective, offered from a really tight third person via Josh, is pretty awful. At best, it’s teenage angst and rebellion, a kid telling his parents off, defying them, his dad/new mom’s personal life notwithstanding. At worst, it’s anti-transgender, Josh pulling out every insult and illogical insult he can to not only get his way, but to make his parents feel awful. He’s a real shit, basically, using Heidi’s situation to promote his personal agenda. By the way, the tattoo he wants is of a giant bull along his arm, the tail curling under to his armpit. Anderson is able to pull off the voice more than convincingly, making us dislike Josh, making us feel for Heidi, and make all readers without kids want to reinforce their birth control methods.

Mom, Sue Ann, tries her best to coach Josh out of his political incorrectness (btw, the therapist is distinctly missing from the gallery), but soon loses her patience. Of course, an entire story could be written about Sue Ann, how she’s dealing with having Heidi instead of Joe as her partner. That’s another story for another day: Sue Ann remains by her spouse, like a rock, forming a front against their mouthy offspring. Eventually, the session is over, end scene.

The rest of the story takes place at a tattoo parlor, Josh attempting to go through with his plan. He gets in the chair, describes his bull in detail—Josh has clear issues with masculinity—to the artist about to ink him forever. The artist, as it turns out, has never done a tattoo before: It’s her first day. She not filled with confidence, but Josh is lucky that she forgot to ask for ID and is deterimined to go through with it. What happens next is where I’ll cut this off, Josh, the little punk who insulted Heidi, who comes off as so incredibly unlikeable, facing the consequences of his very independent decision.

“Bull” is a short piece, not even ten pages long, but is filled with tension, personality, and even a little humor. It sets a nice table-setter for the rest of the book, for the stories I read  after. “Stop. Go.” is a dual-perspective story. The first narrative is about Gina and her partner, Morrison, who are taking their dog to a dog park. On the way, Gina insists the world sucks because everyone has cancer or will soon get it. Her apocalyptic attitude contradicts Morrison’s sunnier disposition, and it’s clear after a while he loves Gina and wants to start a family. Their story converges with that of the Huddlestons, an ancient couple in an enormous Cadillac, driving to a funeral (for one of Mr. Huddleston’s ex-lovers, we find out).

“The Last Time” is about a limo driver, Sam, who doubles as a hearse driver, a guy at the end of his career. His last job is to drive a man and his eight (or more?) kids to their mother’s funeral. Along the way, the widowed man bemoans his recently deceased wife, blames her for dying—during childbirth—blames her for leaving him with all these kids. He goes so far as to call her awful names, right in front of their children, on their way to her funeral, and this is where Sam draws the line.

I skipped ahead for a title next, “Dip Me in Honey and Throw Me to the Lesbians,” which is about Jane, a middle-aged woman waiting for a table at a museum restaurant after a gallery opening. She and her lesbian friends wait impatiently as their reservation time comes and goes. Jane passes the time pontificating on her sexuality and staring at a bearded baby at the table just a few feet away, the baby’s mother not taking to her stares.

Finally, I read “So Many Women, So Little Time,” about Trina and Dee, middle-aged lesbians who have very different ideas of what their relationship is, what relationships are in general, as well as what’s meant by monogamy and trust.

Kathy Anderson’s stories in Bull are tiny burts of human angst, filled with characters trying to have their perspectives heard, understood, and agreed with, frustrated that they’re often not. Most of the people I met are deeply flawed, charcters stuck in stubborn realities, conflicts that don’t always bring out their best selves. That made my time with Anderson’s book enjoyable. Lost souls make bad choices, but it’s mostly bad people being bad, owning it every second.

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April 6, 2020: “Like a Champion” by Vincent Chu

Monday, Monday, Monday, Story366!

Today, we had a bit of a scare. We had to take our beloved Salami to the vet. He was being feisty, running around, trying to get some attention—we’d been outside all day—and ran up my bookshelves. He started to knock over pictures and vases and shit, so I tried to grab him and get him down, but he leapt to the couch instead, about four feet straight down. He didn’t quite stick the landing, hitting the cushion all wonky-like. Even though he’d hit a cushion, I knew right away he wasn’t right as he ran off. I found him hiding under a table he never hides under and he had some blood on his muzzle and was looking kind of listless. I called the Karen—because of course I did—and she headed straight home. Salami kind of looked okay by the time she got here, but he was smacking his lips, something clearly not 100 percent about his right cheek. We called the vet, who said he was either bruised or had a broken jaw; since he’d let me examine him, even thrusting his chin out for me to pet, I didn’t think his jaw was broken. Still, we didn’t want to take any chances—I couldn’t imagine going through this current situation without him—we got in for the last vet appointment of the day.

Note: I hadn’t been out in public, engaging with people, for three weeks. I’d picked up groceries a few times, curbside, and we drove through to pick up some prescriptions … and some Arby’s one time. Karen made me a mask out of one of my bandannas, we stuffed Salami into the carrier, and I headed for a public encounter.

Luckily, I was the last appointment of the day and there was only one other animal/human pair still at the office. This big puppy had just had stomach surgery after eating—get this—a box of dryer sheets. Oh boy. Doggie was fine, went home—$781 later—and we were up. Three minutes after the vet went back to Salami, she came out and said Salami did not have a broken jaw. If he had, it would have been incredibly obvious and he would not have let us pet him, on his jaw or anywhere. The vet told us to keep an eye on him, make sure he eats, and that was that ($46 later).

At the vet’s office, I started reading from Vincent Chu‘s collection, Like a Champion, out in  2018 from 7.13 Books. I’d not read Chu’s work before this, though his stories have been widely published, so I was having another first.

Even in the vet’s office, an orange bandanna rubber-banded around my face, I loved the first story in the collection, “Fred From Finance.” In this story, Fred gets called in to HR on his birthday. Fred doesn’t have a lot of friends, so he dreams that the call is a set-up for a surprise birthday celebration, complete with a cake and singing. Fred is instead fired for lackluster performance. Some fellow employees promise to meet him out for a drink at a local bar, and, well, things get worse for Fred before they get better.

“Boom Town” is about Carlotta, who’s taking a kickboxing self-defense class after she was groped by a guy in public. The story is told in present tense, in real time, Carlotta getting screamed at by her drill-instructoresque instructor. Carlotta gets more and more agitated as she works out, the combo of memories of the incident and the instructor’s screaming pushing her over the edge.

“Ambrosia” is set at suburban Sunday barbecue, several thirty-something couples getting together, trying to one-up each other with both elaborate dishes and stories about getting old. Someone brought something that doesn’t settle well, causing most everyone to run to the bathroom, some not making it, Bridesmaids-style.

This led me to the title story, “Like a Champion,” the title and pentultimate story in the collection. In this story, we meet Georgie, the proprietor of a vintage toy and game shop that’s about to close down for good. Georgie, who’s on the high end of middle age, has worked in the store since he was sixteen, when it belonged to his Uncle Jen, who eventually died and left the store to him. At the start of the story, Georgie is making a last-week bucket list for the store, Like a Champion, everything he wants to do before the week ends.

Chu gives Georgie a lot to do, which includes settling debts, selling off as much merchandise as he can, and asking out the FedEx lady before it’s too late. He accomplishes all of this by Monday afternoon, seemingly leaving him with an easy last week. That is until he attends a friendly lunch with other neighborhood small business owners that unveils a rash of robberies. Everyone except Like a Champion has been hit, but Georgie knows he only has a couple of days left and doesn’t worry about it.

That is (again) until Georgie comes in on Wednesday morning to find his place ransacked and several items stolen, namely a large, valuable Beanie Baby collection. Georgie can’t believe he’s been robbed two days before his business closes, but more so, gets a thought in his head he can’t shake: Hadn’t he just given Felicia, the beautiful FedEx driver, a Beanie Baby the other day, when making their date? Hadn’t he just explained to her how much they were worth and how many he had? And doesn’t she visit all the robbery victims regularly, giving he ample opportunity to case? Suddenly, the woman of his dreams seems like a likely suspect.

Sadly, on his date—Georgie takes Felicia to Applebee’s for all-you-can-eat chicken wings—Georgie can’t help himself: He grills Felicia about her whereabouts the night before, nearly accuses her of stealing his Beanie Babies, and blows his one change. The date had been going so well!

Eventually, the mystery of the stolen Beanie Babies and the local cat burglar gets solved and Georgie’s week ends, along with Like a Champion. There’s plenty of twists and red herrings along the way, and heck, it might even be Felicia responsible for this after all. It’s a fun ride, but we also get to know this sad little man at a low point in his life, the world changing out from under him as he sees his uncle’s legacy disappear. Yet, the story is still uplifting and fun—it’s about a Beanie Baby heist, after all—and I loved every second I spent reading it.

Vincent Chu’s debut, Like a Champion, gave me a jolt during a tense time, then continued to deliver after all was well. This collection entertained the heck out of me, Chu’s approach to story, sentences, and plots very straightforward, but only the surface. Underneath lies a cast of tortured souls, working through Chu’s scripts, hoping to wake up to a better day. I can’t wait to read the rest of this book—I highly recommend you get to know this writer, too.

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April 5, 2020: “The Trail of the Demon” by Jane Gillette

Hello, Story366!

Okay, I have to admit: I’m writing this first part of my post last. I started off with a rundown of my day, how my family and I had a really nice day together, but then erased it. I was thinking that nobody wanted to hear about my nice day. Considering how many people are getting sick and dying from coronavirus, I don’t know if sunbeams and rainbows is the way to go right now, almost as if I’m rubbing it in people’s faces  that we’re healthy and alive.

Or maybe I’m wrong about that? I probably am. Nobody wants me to use this space every day to post death statistics, do they? No, I don’t think so. There’s plenty of outlets for that kind of thing; in fact, it’s mostly unavoidable.

I could also use this part of my posts to give advice, list help lines, places to donate money and supplies, that sort of thing.

Or, I could skip doing this altogether and go out and donate my time, try to do something that matters.

But every day, no matter what I do, where I put my time, or how I try to help, I’m going to write this post. Most of the time, I’m going to add something about my personal life. So, in case you hadn’t guessed, in the midst of all this absurdity, my family sometimes has a nice day. We have a few good meals together. We go for a walk. We spend time out in our yard, both playing and working. We keep in touch with family we can’t see. We take naps and read books and write. Today was a day like that. I don’t want to bore anyone, but at the same time, I don’t want to lie. We had a nice day. I feel good about that,  and wish the same for everyone.

For today’s post, I read the first book published by Missouri Review Books, Jane Gillette‘s 2017 story collection The Trail of the Demon and Other Stories. Since, MRB has published a craft book by their editors and another story collection, A Faithful But Melancholy Account of Several Barbarities Lately Committed by Jason Brown, which I featured three weeks ago here. I’ve already expended their catalogue! I think they’ll have many more collections for me to read in the future, but for today, I’m grateful to have read from Gillette’s collection.

I read four stories from The Trail of the Demon, starting with the first two in the book. “A Preface for Mrs. Parry” is a story that seems to be about memory, how someone processes past events, and how we sometimes can alter things in our head. The story is about a woman recalling her college years, Yale in the mid-sixties, how she had to take a Latin refresher course. From there we get a lot of detail about how she remembers studying under this particular teacher, but as time goes on, when she sees that she’s been mistaken, she ruminates on how she could have remembered a teacher who retired before she was at Yale. The story doesn’t have much of a plot, or an arc, but I enjoyed Gillette’s style, to see how she can get lost in train of thought, how she can make her reader do the same.

The second story is “Divine Afflatus,” a story split into two perspectives. The first narrative is from the point of view of Johnson, a middle-aged divorced poet and poetry professor whose eight-year-oldson was run over and killed by a car. Johnson’s personal life disintegrated after, losing his first wife and daughters, then another wife, while his professional career—inspired by his son’s death—takes off. The second narrative focuses on Louise, a neighbor of Johnson, who does not appreciate his constant smoking and the smell it creates. She does everything she can to get him to stop—Louise is kind of a control freak—relenting only when she finds out he is in fact a noted poet. Interesting trick, switching POVs like that. Gillette ties the stories together with a haunting image for Johnson.

I skipped ahead a bit and read “The Ghost Driver,” mostly about a middle-aged woman who, having lost her husband to a younger woman, takes up a second career as a ballroom dance instructor. The story is set in a particular and quaint local business district, in a studio run by an eccentric foil for our hero, along with some other colorful characters. And I say this story is “mostly” about her because there’s a short diversion in the middle, a separate narrative about Sami, a guy lost in a jungle on the other side of the world, who is suddenly picked up by a limo, only to find the car isn’t driven by anybody—except the ghost driver! Gillette then circles back to the original storyline, about the dance teacher, and what happens there.

Today’s featured story, the title story, uses some of the elements and themes I was getting to know in the first three pieces I read. This story is told by someone but is mostly about someone else, a first-peripheral piece, for the most part. It involves middle-aged, divorced characters living in Northern Virginia/DC. Most of all, it uses what I see as Gillette’s signature style, long, meandering (in a good way) paragraphs that are easy to fall into, with very little if any scene to break them up.

“The Trail of Demons” tells the story of Dawn, through the unnamed narrator telling us about Dawn, a middle-aged divorced woman living in DC. At forty-five, Dawn decides she has to lose weight, so she starts jogging a track, a trail that cuts through several neighborhoods, along some main roads, behind the National Zoo, and back to her house. The woman telling the story is one of her neighbors, a nice lady who sees Dawn winded from her run and always asks her, at their end, to come and drink martinis with her on her porch. Dawn seems to accept most of the time. The two women drink and talk, Dawn doing most of the talking, creating those long paragraphs, full of anecdotes and sidetracks and good writing by Gillette.

Dawn runs this trail for ten years, sometimes with slight derivations, such as starting in the  opposite direction. For the most part, she sees success—she slims down quite a bit—by sticking to her routine. Sadly, years into this routine, she finds herself attacked, pulled off the trail, her hand thrust downward to her assailant’s penis. Dawn is able to wiggle free and see her attacker, a young black boy, no more than sixteen. The boy laughs at Dawn—he thinks he has all the power—which enrages Dawn more than the actual attack. Dawn grabs a wine bottle from the gutter, breaks it like a cowboy in a saloon, and chases the boy with the broken bottle in her hand. The boy chides her more, knowing she’s chasing him, and eventually gets bored, hops on a bus, gone forever.

Dawn tells her neighbor/our narrator this story—not the day in happened, but in the following weeks—and the story takes a dark turn of a different sort: Dawn begins to spew racial epithets. Dawn lists every crime, violent or not, committed by black youths in their neighborhood, along with some crimes unsolved, which Dawn blames on black youths. It’s at this point the story becomes less about Dawn, her tragic assault, and more about sociopolitics, urban sprawl, and white privilege. We get most of this through the longest paragraph Gillette has in her, a laundry list of awfulness, relayed in a vindictive, hateful manner. Ugh.

Dawn’s story takes yet another turn when she pairs this story with the story of a professor who harrassed her in college (Yale again), a guy who stalked her once while she was out for a walk, a guy she dealt with in a manner similar to the way she handled her would-be rapist on her jogging trail. Dawn doesn’t have any love for her white, oversexed professor, either, or white, oversexed professors in general. Dawn’s story is pretty tragic, her life marked by these incidents, and you can’t blame her: So many of us are defined by our worst days. At least when we’re telling stories to our neighbors and putting back heroic amounts of booze.

“The Trail of the Demon” does switch to the narrator’s story near the end, but I won’t reveal that here. It ties up the narratives, presents another social issue or two, and overall, is a nice ending to the story and the whole collection.

The Trail of the Demon and other Stories by Jane Gillette is a solid debut, for both the writer and her press. I liked reading these stories, which perhaps focus more on voice, on Gillette’s long, gorgeous paragraphs, than they do specific narrative. I’m not sure I’ve read stories quite like these, and I love that, a writer defining her own version of the short story, a writer unafraid to take risks, a writer dedicated to craft more than car crashes or good-bye kisses. Kudos to her for being original, for doing her thing and doing it well.

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April 4, 2020: “Your Life Should Have Meaning on the Day You Die” by Richard Wiley

For what it’s worth, it’s Saturday, Story366!

I say this tongue-in-cheek, as I know there are quite a few people out there who have not forgotten what day of the week it because they are going to work, all those people who are essential (and those who are pretending to be). Even I’ve had structure this past week, classes restarting online, a department meeting yesterday, and a new episode of Star Wars Clone Wars appeared on queue, as usual for a Friday (starting to wonder how long this Martez sisters plotline is going to last …). I guess I’m indicating that my days aren’t that much different, but I guess that’s also an insult to those people on the frontlines of all this, those people who are working extra shifts, whose alarms go off in the morning, who would justifiably want to kick me in the chin for joking about the days running together.

But yeah, Saturday.

We’ve been in stay-at-home mode for almost three weeks now, with anywhere from two to eleven more on the way (I’m guessing the latter). We’re holding up fine, as really, we have a lot to do, and keeping busy is what keeps us sane. Ever since my panic attack earlier this week, I’ve been trying to go to bed as late and as tired as I can, exhausting myself so I don’t have another incident like that. I’ve also stopped eating at night, have made sure to exercise, and generally try to get a grip on my own thoughts. For the last couple of nights, I’ve been able to ward off any repeat incidents.

My regimen has included walks, hikes, working in the garden, keeping the house clean, teaching my classes, talking to my extended family on the phone, but most of all, this blog. Story366, in 2020, has been taking me, on average, two hours a day to complete. That’s up from 2016, when I could start my post at eleven p.m. (if I was forced to) and could finish before midnight. This year, I’ve been reading more stories from the collections (can’t help myself), writing longer intros (like this one here), and have been adding more links and more connecting more to social media, which tacks another ten minutes or so on the end every day. Two hours a day is a lot of day, especially if I want to sleep for six to eight hours (gotta stay healthy, keep my immunity up).

Really, though, what would I do with out it? This project keeps me super-focused, for one, these stories distracting my mind from the world. It also fits into a reliable formula, yet at the same time, is 90 percent unique every day (today’s author cannot be more different from yesterday’s author, Chaya Bhuvaneswar). I feel compelled to complete this every day, over three months in, so I wake up thinking about which book I’ll read and when I’ll read it. My family is on board, too, knowing I’m going to sneak away to my couch library and read for an hour each day; soon after, I’ll spend another hour, at least, typing out the post. On top of all this, I’m constantly researching books, writing to presses, finding deals, and discovering new authors—if I’m not reading or writing, I’m planning.

In short, a lot of time and energy—nervous energy—is exhausted on Story366. And thank God. I can’t see me not doing this. So to you, Story366 reader, I hope you find your own project, your own thing that keeps you occupied, whether it’s saving lives, bringing groceries out to my car, or just trying to exist, in your home, where you’re supposed to be. I highly recommend a daily project, of any variety, to help make this time pass. It might just be a lifesaver.

Speaking of which, today I read from Richard Wiley‘s 2019 collection, Tacoma Stories, out from Bellevue Literary Press. Wiley has been writing books for a long time and has won some major awards, including the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Yet, I don’t recall having read his work before today. As always, it’s great to visit a new writer. Let’s hit it.

I’ll start off by noting that the first story in Tacoma Stories, “Your Life Should Have Meaning on the Day You Die,” takes place in a bar called Pat’s Tavern, in Tacoma, Washington, on St. Patrick’s Day, 1968. The narrator is a young bartender named Richie, and he’s dyed his hair green to celebrate the holiday. He spends pretty much all day and night serving suds, green as his hair, mostly to the tavern’s regulars. There’s a colorful cast of characters, including Pat, the on-the-wagon owner; Fatty and Paddy, Pat’s drinking buds; Mary, Richie’s beautiful bartending partner; Andy, a divorced lawyer; two Saudi guys named Sari and Hani who like to sit at the bar; Lindy, whose husband is in jail and takes men home to keep her company; and Becky, the real-life (I looked it up) daughter of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, among others. All in all, there’s sixteen characters in this bar that matter, and Wiley more or less uses this story to introduce them all, sort of like an inventory or manifest, tying them together in this way—several times, Richie even lists them for us, in a meta sort of way, as if telling us to pay attention and remember everyone.

The story gets even more meta near the end, Richie trying to figure out whose story this is before settling, ultimately, on Tacoma itself, that “Your Life Should Have Meaning on the Day You Die,” is about Tacoma and all its inhabitants. Interesting concept and structure for a book. Kind of reminds me of a David Schickler’s Kissing in Manhattan, in which all the stories are about people who live in a particular New York aparment building, everyone coming together for a cocktail party in the last story. In “Your Life Should Have Meaning on the Day You Die,” Wiley doesn’t need to wrap things up, only show us these characters, who we’ll get to know more intimately. Here they’re having a good time, celebrating among friends, drinking too much green beer and eating burgers and fries, then going home. It’s a unique story—I’ve not quite seen this particular thing done before—worthy of the focus here today, perhaps even necessary.

I started to read the individual characters’ stories, randomly, and liked to catch up on these other people, see them become three-dimensional. The second story in the book is “A Goat’s Breath Carol,” and is about a poor kid named Perry White, who accidently kills the Churchill family goat when trying to wrangle it into the family garage. Perry is sweet on the Churchill daughter his age, Winnie, but despises/fears the older daughter, Lindy, the Lindy from the first story, the one whose ex-husband is in jail—this story takes place in 1958, ten years before the opener (Wiley notes the year underneath each story title, by the way). Perry feels terrible for what he’s done, but when he goes to own up to it, to apologize, he finds himself part of an elaborate funeral ceremony.

“The Dangerous Gift of Beauty” is about Mary, in 2001, still living in Tacoma, working as a Jaguar salesperson. Mary’s still a stunner, thirty-three years later, and this story is partly her existential angst over her beauty. She starts off the story in bed with Earl—another character from the bar in 1968—but eventially feels restless and wanders out. Another large part of the story is the movie The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, filmed in Tacoma, in a house that’s become a mini-tourist destination. Mary finds herself at the house—she once saw the movie’s star, Annabella Sciorra (yes, the hero from the Harvey Weinstein prosecution), standing off set, and has since used the actor as sort of a muse and spiritual guide. From outside, she spies the house’s newest owner, a man as beautiful as she is, and finds a way to insinuate herself inside, into his life, to continue her philosophical quest.

Lastly, I read “The Women,” about Andy, that divorced lawyer, who’s now a twice-divorced judge. Andy runs into a woman named Mariah, their dogs getting into a scrape, and the first part of the story depicts their meeting and first date—which ends when Mariah’s ex, a former Seattle Seahawks star, serenades her with a ukulele song. The story picks up again six months later, Andy running for reelection, Mariah showing up at a campaign event to apologize. Andy and Mariah hit the ground running from there, eventually looking to buy a house together. It so happens that Andy ran into Ted Bundy back in law school and has since been obsessed with the serial killer. Lo and behold, Bundy’s childhood home, in Tacoma, is for sale—and dirt cheap—and the pair buy it. Andy doesn’t consider why people don’t want to live in murder or murderer’s houses and becomes haunted, not by Bundy, but by his many victims, women who come to him in his waking life.

When I first read “Your Life Should Have Meaning on the Day You Die,” I wasn’t sure what to think, as the story didn’t really have a plot, just a really well wrought setting and lots of interesting characters. After I read some of the promo materials and realized what this story was doing, I became immediately more interested. I’m glad I stuck it out, as the stories in Tacoma Stories, Richard Wiley’s tribute to his home town, is not only a clever and well executed concept for a collection, but an enjoyable and touching one at that. I liked reading about these people I sorta knew, then getting to know them, or at least one strand of their lives. I’m not really sure why Lindy was such a minor character in “her” story, though I’m pretty convinced at this point that Perry, that sweet kid who killed her goat, is her no-good ex-husband, serving time in 1968. I liked that Mary became more dimensional than just pretty, even though the pretty is the vehicle for her expansion. And I like Andy’s tale, especially, this kooky date story that turns into frightening Ted Bundy story. I want to read the rest of this book, as I want to see what happens to Beccy Welles, the seemingly average but historically real daughter of Hollywood royalty. I want to see what becomes of Pat’s Tavern. Most of all, I want to see what happens to Richie—though again, I have my suspicions: Perhaps I’ve just read from the young bartender’s story collection. It’s a great concept, one that hooked me in, making for a wonderful book.

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April 3, 2020: “White Dancing Elephants” by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

Good Friday to you, Story366!

I just finished the first Zoom meeting of my life, my monthly English Department meeting, and boy, are my arms tired!

I’ve discovered this about Zoom meetings: A department meeting is a department meeting no matter how you dress it up. It was really nice to see all of my colleagues—and it was all of them, as it’s not like they could claim to have other plans—but after that wore off, it was business as usual. There was a lot of addressing the current situation, which I expected. The dean dropped by and thanked everyone for working so hard, which was great, as was his encouragement going forward. Some of my colleagues started asking the tough questions—like about possible layoffs—and without any way to answer those in an informed way, he wisely skirted them. Then our department chair answered more questions, some of them tough, some of them not so, and after an hour, we were done. So, it was like a regular department meeting, only with the constant reminder of the absurdity of our new reality. Yay.

I had to wonder, afterwards, how many times I forgot myself, that I was on camera. I’ve gone to a lot of meetings in person, where all of us sit in a big classroom and … meet. I’m sure I do all kinds of weird stuff there I don’t realize. But in a classroom, I’m just part of the backdrop. If someone zones in on me, sure, they could observe and judge, but that’s their issue: You need somethin’, bro? On camera, when it’s just you—your face and shoulders and biceps—you can’t escape. How often did I touch my face? Are people keeping track? Did I just burp? Can people smell through Zoom? Did I just carry the phone into the bathroom and sing “Home on Range” with the microphone on? With Zoom, you have to be more aware of yourself. I’m no sure I have that kind of discipline. I guess we’ll find out.

Before the meeting, I read several stories from Chaya Bhuvaneswar‘s 2018 collection, White Dancing Elephants, out from Dzanc Books. I’d not read any of Bhuvaneswar’s work before today, so it was nice to get in touch with what she does.

I started with the lead and title story, “White Dancing Elephants,” a piece about a young Indian woman, living in England, who’s have an internal dialogue with a you, talking to someone specifically as she shuffles through what seems like an ordinary day. The trick, it seems, was to discover the person she’s talking to, what’s prompting this stylized monologue, and why she’s communicating to them in this manner.

We soon discover whom she’s addressing: Her recently miscarried baby. This tragedy has befallen her quite recently, in fact, as she found the discarded fetus just that morning, amidst some abnormal flow. So, this story takes place in the immediate aftermath of this shocking and horrific turn of events. It’s an intense premise for a story, en medis res to the extreme.

Our hero travels through Oxford, first to a pharmacy to buy more pads—she’s still bleeding—all the while going over what’s happened to her that day, throughout her life. We get a lot of her backstory, especially the history of her becoming pregnant, but also her plans for the baby, the future that would never be.

Have I used the word “tragedy” yet?

After the pharmacy, the woman takes a cab to the zoo, where she continues her thoughts, continues to cope. Along the way, we get the occasional reference to elephants—a theme for the nursery, perhaps? When they pick up later in the story and the elephants are white, it finally hit me: Ohhhhh … like Hemingway.

If this story couldn’t get any sadder, Bhuvaneswar takes her protagonist to a final destination, which I won’t reveal here. All in all, this story depicts an impossible journey, beautifully describing the wanderings of a person who’s just experienced a unfathomable blow. What a tough undertaking, to capture a character at this moment, on this day. The story is powerful and elegant, a grotesque journey of personal loss and its swift consequences.

“The Woman Who Fell in Love With Death” begins with a young boy reading a story in a Starbucks, the tale of a woman who loses her lover, but then falls in love with the agent of death who took him from her. The tale ends, but the boy grows up and sees a parallel in his own life, his older sister having gone missing some time ago. He lives his whole life, wondering what’s happened to her, haunted by her absence.

“Orange Popsicles” is the story of Jayanti, an Indian woman studying in America, who experiences a series of events that are, as you might guess at this point, rather tragic. Jayanti starts to see a male student from one of her classes. After a critical exam in that class, she is accused of cheating by the dean and must come in for an interview. Jayanti, on scholarship, is terrified she will lose everything. Even worse, the boy she’d just started seeing threatens her to lie, to take the fall and claim it was all her doing so can get off scott-free. To emphasize his point, he stages an elaborate group rape, trying to silence Jayanti permanently. The story takes a turn or two after that, but what’s done is done: A rape, especially one as extreme and violent as what’s happened to Jayanti, can never be forgotten.

I also read “The Goddess of Beauty Goes Bowling”—I admit, I was cherry-picking titles as this point—which is about an Indian guy, Gopi, living in America, more or less trying to raise his daughter correctly. Gopi married a woman twenty years younger than he did—it was arranged by his family—but henceforth, his wife is both loving and manipulative, taking control of his life and the lives of his children thereafter. The goddess of beauty in the title is his daughter, the one with whom he’s trying to salvage a relationship.

On the whole, White Dancing Elephants includes a lot of tragic turns, yes, but it’s a lyrical, graceful book, chronicling the lives and losses of its inhabitants. Chaya Bhuvaneswar is a poet, a writer of great skill and obvious empathy for what horrors can befall the human heart. While there’s a lot of sadness here, I was glad to encounter a writer of such depth, compassion, and finesse.

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April 2, 2020: “Dog on the Cross” by Aaron Gwyn

Hello, Story366!

Yesterday on FB, I posted an opinion article from the Tribune that outlined some possible changes coming to the baseball world after the COVID-19 pandemic. The author predicted that several mainstays from the baseball world might be gone for good, including the swimming pool at the Diamondbacks’ stadium, the public shower at the White Sox stadium (nee Comiskey Park), and throwing visitor home runs back onto the field at Wrigley. Center on this list is my secondary profession, beer vending, and seat vending in general. The author posits that it would be too risky for people like me to enter the crowd, handling edibles, and for fans to grab onto those edibles and pass them down the row; of course, worse that that, a lot of cash goes back and forth as well. We’ll live in a different world, this guy claims, and it’d be better for fans just to go to the concession stand, from now on, rather than reinstitute the unsafe practice of seat peddling.

First of all, this is a sports opinion columnist, fresh into week three of no sports to write about, so he’s gotta write about something. Secondly, this is an opinion columnist, people who write controversial things, just to rabble rouse, to get more traffic in their comments, and more hits on their articles. He is not the commissioner of baseball, nor does he a own a team or a food service corporation. So, it’s all just light reading, at best.

Next, when MLB and the other sports leagues come back, packing tens of thousands of fans into their stadiums, does it really matter what seat vendors do? People will already be jammed together, elbow-to-elbow, in the seats, much closer to each other than six feet. They’ll be there for fhree hours or more, unless they are, of course, wandering the concourse, using the public bathroom, or crowding into a concession line; some parks now have playgrounds so kids can avoid baseball; all of them have stadium clubs so idiot non-fans can do the same. So, how is passing a beer, hot dog, or frosty malt tipping the scale? What, everyone would be safe otherwise?

My supposition: All or nothing. Either we’re clear of this and any resurgence and we have baseball, or we’re not and we don’t. There is no halfway on this—either fans can go to the games, worry-free, or they shouldn’t be going back. End of story. Make an argument if you want that seat vendors are noisy, block the view of the game, or what we do is unclean, coronavirus or no coronavirus—you could win any of those arguments. But to eliminate all those jobs (including mine) because someone at a game with thirty-four thousand other people might get sick from what I do in particular? That’s just dumb, even if it’s just an opinion.

Today’s book is Dog on the Cross, the debut collection from Aaron Gwyn, out from Algonquin Books in 2004. I’ve read stories by Gwyn over the years, some of which are in this book, but it’s been a while. Glad to be revisiting, to be focusing on his work today.

I found that the stories in Dog on the Cross take place in Perser, Oklahoma, and are spread out across the twentieth century, some spanning decades. The stories are written in third person, following their protagonist as they face major obstacles, physical and spiritual. Characters attend the First Pentecostal Church and are sometimes the main characters, sometimes as their foils. The stories cut close to each of the characters, intimately following as they climb their arcs, dipping upward and downward.

First up, “Of Falling,” is about George Crider, who as a young man, falls ten stories, breaking every bone in his body, but lives. Within a couple of years, George is up walking, and two years later, he’s working. George eventually carves a good life for himself, but later on, develops some serious insomnia, on top of his other injuries catching up with him. His long-suffering, dedicated wife, takes to following a particular preacher/faith healer around the South, looking for answers for herself and the reluctant, stiff-willed George.

“The Offering” is a similar story, about Kathy Olaf, a Perser woman who suffers a stroke at the outset of the story, mistaking it for dying, for meeting Christ. Awake, one month later, Kathy finds herself working her way back from several paralyses, overcoming them all save one: She’s mute. Kathy’s husband, trying to help, buys her one of those voice synthesizers, not unlike Stephen Hawking’s, and Kathy works her way back toward singing. Thrown in is a Jesus-loving parrot, by the way—I feel I need to mention the parrot.

“In Tongues” is about a character overcoming a different affliction. Hassler, a popular Perser preacher, loses his ability to speak in tongues. This is a pretty big deal, as that’s his bread and butter, yammering on as his congregation sings and dances and praises the lord. While he recovers, Hassler enlists the help of a teenaged preacher, Snodgrass, who brings his revival to the First Pentecostal. Snodgrass’s popularity soon sends Hassler into a panic, this young, talented orator on the verge of stealing everything away.

I ended with the last story, the title story, “Dog on a Cross.” This story centers on Deputy Martin, a level-headed Perser lawman who gets called to the First Pentecostal to investigate a disturbing incident: a beagle puppy has been crucified on a mini-cross and placed underneath the church marquee. Deacon Withers, who called Martin in, thinks he knows exactly who did this horrible thing: an Easterner named Hollis who lives two hundred yards down the hill. Hollis, who has complained about the church’s loud services, is also a professed atheist. Withers wants Hollis arrested and sent to jail for this crime.

Martin, as said, is level-headed, so he doesn’t want to jump to any conclusions. He walks down the hill to Hollis’ property, which includes a kennel filled with beagle puppies (not uncommon in Perser, the dogs bred for hunting). Hollis’ house is built underground, revealing only an oak door. Martin knocks and no one is home. He returns to the church  and Withers asks if Hollis is on his way to prison. Martin says no and Hollis is irrate. Martin reminds him there is no evidence of any wrongdoing, which Withers, and the community, refuse to accept: an East Coast atheist must have committed this horrible crime. Martin doesn’t know what to do, but can’t even find Hollis.

Eventually, Hollis presents himself at a church service, causing a ruckus that Martin is called out to handle. Hollis apparently stormed into the church, accusing them of killing his dog, leading to a scuffle. By the time another deputy arrived, Hollis had to be restrained and pushed the deputy down a few stairs. This also knocked over an elderly lady, Delores, who just happened to be the grandmother and caretaker of Preacher Snodgrass, who apparently has taken over the First Pentecostal (I skipped a story or two in-between). Martin interviews Delores, who insists that Hollis is a bad man, had crucified his dog, and belongs in jail. Martin is not surprised, and is having a hard time believing Hollis’ innocence.

Martin is elected to interview Hollis, whose East Coast lawyer is on his way. Martin is fair but skeptical, trying to befriend Hollis so he can coax a confession. Hollis is a retired chemist, moving to Perser because an uncle used to own land nearby. He built the underground house there to get away, to find peace, and was disturbed to find out how the churche’s music and loud services traveled underground. He admits to complaining about the music, but not to killing his dog: He blames Delores and Snodgrass for this. It seem as though the pair had paid Hollis a visit, insisting upon converting him to their church. Hollis’ refusal is what sparked the incident with the dog, which Hollis claims to be revenge.

Martin wants to believe Hollis, but eventually, he caves at the man’s stubborness and decides he doesn’t believe him, maybe doesn’t like him. The interview gets tense, but still, there’s no evidence of anything besides assaulting an officer and some light battery. Hollis’ lawyer gets him off with a large fine, but he sells his house and leaves town before paying.

The story’s outcome really lies within the denouement, sometime down the road, as we revisit Martin, Perser, and the incident. I won’t reveal that here, but it’s a subtle, beautiful way for this story, and this book, to end. Perhaps the most logical man in the entire town, that we’ve met so far, is left doubting everything he knows, placing a pallor over everything that’s come before.

I really liked reading Dog on the Cross, Aaron Gwyn’s interconnected collection about the town of Perser, Oklahoma, and its residents’ ructions with their demanding faith. Characters are challenged throughout these stories, struggling to find a balance between their own capacity and relenting all power, not to God, but to the people who claim to represent him. These are intense, personal stories, stories that in a lesser writer’s hands, could have been good instead of great. Easily, George could have overcome his anxieties, Kathy her muteness, Hassler his other kind of muteness. Gwyn instead has more in mind for these lost souls, has more ambition for his fiction than easy answers. That’s what makes this book special.

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April 1, 2020: “The Trojan War Museum” by Ayşe Papatya Bucak

Hello, Story366!

Today is April 1, April Fool’s Day. Really, not my favorite “holiday,” as I don’t suffer fools, even when I’m the fool, well at all. I hated it in grade school when dopey kids would go up to each other and say things like “I think you’re cool—April Fools!” Even the teachers would get into it with shit like “No homework tonight, kids—April Fools!” This is all pretty innocent, but when it gets cruel and unusual—people faking accidents, injuries, and tragedies, it’s just stupid. I can’t remember specific incidents, but I remember them happening and hating it, fake stories of death and disappointment, only to have the rug pulled out moments after.

Just today, our oldest son, while we were working/home-school at the table, started yelling from upstairs, crying that his ceiling fans cut off his fingers. The Karen and I jumped ran to the stairs, believing him; for a flash, the whole awful scene ran through my head: all the blood, my boy in shock, the severed fingers, me collecting them into a container, the ER, the therapy, the lifelong trauma, everything.

When he appeared at the top of the stairs, smiling, saying, “April Fools!” I was pissed. I shouldn’t have been—he’s 13 and I should have seen it coming—but damn, what a terrible thing to think.

And I haven’t even mentioned the possible damage to that ceiling fan.

My biggest April Fool’s shame came four years ago, during the initial Story366 year, at AWP. I woke in my hotel, reading a message from my SmokeLong Quarterly cohorts that they were changing the name of the magazine to something like SpeakLong Quarterly or StupidMikeLong Quarterly, as they wanted to separate the magazine from the evils of tobacco. Rushing to get ready and be at the conference center on time, I wasn’t thinking and just took it at face value: We were changing our name. Okay, cool.

Tara Laskowski, then SLQ’s editor, stopped by the Moon City table later that day and said something like Did you see my note? I answered her and responded that I had, that I thought it was drastic, but a good idea. Or whatever. Tara looked at me for a second, sort of like a child looks at a brand-new toy, realizing that I didn’t know: I was believing her goof, her April Fool’s joke. She then stuttered something out, informing me that it wasn’t real, and might have even murmured April Fools. Her next expression revealed that I’d made her day, that I’d made her conference, that I’d perhaps made her life. She did not let me hear the end of that for some time. I’m not even sure why I’m bringing it back up. Ugh.

For today’s post, I read from Ayşe Papatya Bucak‘s 2019 debut, The Trojan War Museum, out from Norton. Before today, I had not read Bucak’s stories, so I looked forward to jumping in.

I started by reading the first few stories in the book. The opener, “The History of Girls,” is set at a Muslim girls’ boarding school in the aftermath a gasline explosion. The blast (if it’s the gas and not something else …) kills half the girls and leaves the rest buried in the rubble, many of them hurt and unable to move. More importantly, the girls who have died, the dead girls, are still present, visiting the live girls as ghosts. The events of the next few days are chronicled, both sets of girls discussing their situation, the ghosts encouraging the living to hang on, even as more of the girls join their ranks.

Next up, “A Cautionary Tale,” is about Yusuf Ismail, the Terrible Turk, Turkey’s greatest wrestling champion. Part of this story reads like a tall tale, while another part reads as a cautionary tale of sorts, as the title might indicate, Ismail facing the consequences of fame and fortune. Another aspect of the story, one offset in italics, is what seems to be an interview, maybe for a job or a bank loan, where the interviewer is telling the tales of the Terrible Turk, while the interviewee has no idea why any of it is part of the interview.

The third story, “Iconography,” is about a young Turkish woman, studying at an American university, who decides to stop eating. Much is made of her choice and predicament, and when asked, the girl says she will not eat until everything in the world is changed—when asked for what specifically she wants changed, she doubles down and insists upon everything being changed. The girl ends up disappearing, while the story’s end posits several theories as to what’s happened to her.

Today’s focus, the title story, “The Trojan War Museum,” is a description of the eight or nine facilities that have, in history and in the future, been called “The Trojan War Museum.” The first was the actual battleground of the Trojan War, all its primary relics: the bones and the weapons. The second museum was created by the gods—Zeus, Apollo, and Athena-types—Greek deities who factor heavily in all of the museums, act as real-life characters throughout Bucak’s story. This museum, like many of its followers, lasts a brief time, has a middling level of success as a museum, and then is gone.

Trojan War Museums pop up throughout history, some started by humans, others by the gods. Sometimes the museums have actual artifacts—things we’d find in any museum—and sometimes the museum create facsimiles to make their museum popular: the arrow that pierced Achilles’ heal; the sword Achilles used to slay Hector; the Trojan horse itself. These versions seem to enjoy more of a life, as after all, that’s what people would want to see: The relics from the story, even if they’re not real.

The present day comes and goes, as some of the later museums are built into the twenty-first century, these later versions by the aforementioned Greek gods. It seems as if they are alive and well—they are immortal, after all—and their interests have moved beyond worship to enterprising business opportunities. When you think about it, who’s likely to have the actual artifacts from the fall of Troy: Some curator living in America, centuries later, or Athena, whose temple was destroyed by the Greeks?

I’ll note that this story also has another line runing through it, another section in italics. This one seems more like a detail evoking of a muse, one that goes into some pretty serious evoking.

Overall, I like this story, how it has a lot of fun with history, but at the same time, can strike a somber, serious tone: After all, this was a war, people died, ancient Turks, Bucak’s people. A lot of it is told tongue-in-cheek, satire more than tribute—I wasn’t even positive Troy existed in modern-day Turkey until I looked it up today. This has been educational, along with fulfilling and entertaining.

Ayşe Papatya Bucak (who is Turkish-American, if you hadn’t guessed) writes splendid stories. The Trojan War Museum is quite the debut, Bucak exploring her heritage through her eclectic range of tales, stories about figures both legendary and historic. It’s that balance of whimsy and lesson that makes this book so special to me, as I know there’s something behind every story, every reference, every bit I didn’t quite understand. This was a solid way to spend my evening. I highly recommend.

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March 31, 2020: “The Empty House” by Nathan Oates

Hey hey, Story366!

Today is another beautiful, sunny day in Springfield. And it couldn’t come soon enough. Last night, after doing some work and putzing around, I wandered up to bed around two a.m. At 3:12 a.m., I jolted awake from an anxiety dream, some simple combination of me being stuck somewhere/me not being able to do something, which for me is sort of a mental claustrophobia. Usually, I can get up, turn on a light or two, get a drink, and regain my bearings. This morning, however, I couldn’t shake the feeling. When I tried going back to bed again, five minutes after I woke, I almost immediately felt trapped, enveloped by my bed, the blankets, the sheets and pillows, and most of all, the darkness.

I jumped up again. This time, the Karen woke, too, and worked with me. She followed me downstairs, rubbed my shoulders, said sweet things. After ten minutes of this, I tried one more time to get into bed, but nope. I again felt the overwhelmingness of our situation, of the night combined with the quarantine: I wanted it all to be over, both night and our inability to do what we wanted. Rationally, I knew both things would end in time—darkness in a couple of hours and quarantine in a month or two. But when I become anxious like this, feel the mental claustrophobia, rationality doesn’t apply.

Karen, who usually gets up around four on Tuesdays—her paper’s production day—was happy to sit with me in the wide-open living room/kitchen area, help coax me out of it. We put on shoes and stood on the back deck, in the cold and rain; we talked about nonsensical whimsy; we watched a couple of episodes of 30 Rock, which we’ve been rebinging the last week; she rubbed my back some more and we tried to fall asleep on the couch.

At five, her alarm went off and it was time for her to get to work—she usually has a dozen stories to write every Tuesday, little local paper snippets that she’s researched, conducted interviews for, and taken notes on during the previous week. I was more than happy to occupy myself and my thoughts, to make Karen her breakfast, to pack her a lunch. By the time I was done with that, the sun started to peek out from eastward and I felt better. I sat down on the couch and nodded off. Around six-thirty, Karen suggested I try the bed again, so I went up and immediately fell asleep, not waking until just before eleven, and only because the boys were up and wanting breakfast.

So, that was my early morning: a panic attack. I feel fine now. I’ve cleaned up around the house, read, took a shower, and got the boys outside to rake up the deck. Now we’re sitting at the table, me writing this post, them attempting at-home schooling.

How are you?

That book I read from today was The Empty House by Nathan Oates, out in 2013 from Lost Horse Press/Willow Springs Books as winner of the 2012 Spokane Prize for Short Fiction. I’m familiar with Oates’ work—he was a runner-up in last year’s Moon City Short Fiction Award—but I’d not read any of these stories from The Empty House, his first book, despite them appearing in a lot of magazines and anthologies. So, here we go.

Oates’ collection basically deals with people travelling abroad, sort of the like other collections I’ve covered this year, including Derek Green and Serena Crawford. While Green’s book is about people working abroad and trying to profit from those situations, and Crawford’s is about lost people trying to find themselves, Oates’ stories lie somewhere in-between, as his travelers are sometimes lost when they embark on their journeys, but also become lost—or worse—while on them. The three books read similarly enough, thematically; at the same time, each author’s style is so distinct, they stand on their own.

Oates’ opening story, “Nearby, the Edge of Europe,” is about a college professor’s trip to Ireland with his family. Martin, our protagonist, traveled to these same parts as a boy, only to see tragedy befall his extended family while there. Now, he’s back with Caitlin—his famous novelist wife—and their three kids, trying to save his marriage. Caitlin, by the way, doesn’t want to be there, on top of the fact she’s started drinking heavily in the past couple of years. The family stays with Martin’s cousins, the same cousins he stayed with as a boy, and Martin must not only face the reality of his marriage, but an old relative to whom that tragedy befell.

“Looking for Service” is about an unnamed guy who journeys somewhere down to South America. He’s an accountant for a major mining corporation and his job is to travel to foreign branches and be the bad guy, look over their books and make sure they’re doing what they say they’re doing. While on his current trip, he runs into a young American couple, idealists who take to him like strays dogs, full of pep and looking for handouts. Their idealism eventually gets the best of them, however, and our guy’s stuck in the middle of it all.

“The Yellow House” is a shorter piece, the shortest in the book, and is about a guy who spies a particular yellow house on his way to and from work every day from his train window. The house makes him think of the house he lived in as a kid, the story sending its protagonist on a journey of a different kind.

That brings us to the title story, “The Empty House,” the last story in the book and my favorite of those I’ve read. “The Empty House” is a split point-of-view story, firstly about Ryan, an American journalist set to meet an old college friend, now a missionary in Guatemala. Ryan has been working in Chile and Argentina, writing about political uprisings and such, and has perhaps pressed the wrong buttons with the wrong government officials. He’s on his way home when he stops in Guatemala to see his friend.

At this point, the story cuts over to Ryan’s younger brother, a decade and a half later (and switches from third to first person at the same time). Ryan has been missing for years, since the proceedings of Ryan’s half of the story, and his brother, now in his twenties, has come to Guatemala in search of answers. He wants to at least talk to someone about the case, or perhaps merely to retrace his brother’s last-known steps. The civil war has recently ended, but this unnamed brother is still a stranger in a strange land, and there’s definitely still danger about, especially for a lone American asking too many questions about long-past disappearances.

The story follows this pattern, Oates shifting back and forth between timelines and brothers. Ryan wades deeper into his investigation. His priest friend never meets him at the train station, and after some looking around, Ryan finds his body in the courtyard of his parish, badly beaten and malformed. Ryan’s work—for which this Guatemala story was always just an extra—takes a backseat: He now just wants to get back to the States. He isn’t sure who to trust or how to even arrrive safely at the airport, however, his plane just a day away.

The brother’s story, which is given fewer words, keeps on Ryan’s trail, but sadly, there’s not much to go on: The details surrounding Ryan’s disappearance are slight. He can’t even find a case file at any police station.

Eventually, Oates reveals why this is, solving the mystery of what happened to Ryan, why  he never returned to America, why his brother had to come looking for him fifteen years later. I won’t reveal that here, though, as that would be too much. “The Empty House” is a really well told tale, cleverly structured, key details revealed at the exact right moment, yet snaring us into the narrative early with the right details. This, mixed with Oates’ keen sense for his settings, rings a true, exciting tone. It’s no wonder this story ended up in the Best American Mystery Stories anthology, a whodunnit, or perhaps a whuthappind.

I thoroughly enjoyed Nathan Oates’ debut collection, The Empty House. Ficton is all about giving characters problems to deal with, only some authors handle that better, and more uniquely, than others. I liked reading about these characters’ issues, set amidst these unfamiliar (to me) landscapes. Oates weaves conflict and setting so seamlessly, I wonder if he hasn’t been to all these places, hasn’t experienced all these events. He’s is a skilled writer and I’m thrilled to have spent this time with his earlier work today.

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