January 22, 2020: “Welcome, Anybody” by Jen McConnell

Good evening, Story366!

Today was a normal day for the first time in a while, no travel, no funerals, no birthdays, no holiday weekend. Just a normal day, back at work, teaching class for the first time since the first day of classes. A department meeting sidetracked me from what I’d wanted to do this afternoon—like write this post—but for the most part, today was the first regular day of the semester. About time. I need the routine.

Once the boys are off to school and the Karen is off to work, I’ll have a choice to make every day this semester. I don’t teach or have office hours until later in the afternoon, so I can either A) get right to my office, where I can focus my energies on a variety of tasks; or B) sort of try to do that around my house, which almost definitely will lead to a nap and quite a bit of snacking. Today, option B won in a landslide. Between ten a.m. and two p.m., I did a little bit of work, bookended by a couple of naps, paired with a shockingly large lunch.

Tomorrow, I need to do better.

One thing I did accomplish today was read from Jen McConnell‘s 2012 collection, Welcome, Anybody, out from Press 53. I’ve known Jen and her work for a while, so I’m not really sure why it’s taken me so long to get to her book. But the magic that is Story366 mends all  wounds, meaning I spent a nice long while on my couch, taking in her stories.

It was an enjoyable time, too, as McConnell is good at what she does. I read a handful of stories from the book, starting with the lead piece, “Debris,” about a bar waitress who has a creepy regular die during her shift. “The Safest Place in the World” came next and is about an accident-prone pregnant couple trying to make it through their last trimester. I then skipped ahead to “Supergirl”—because I’m a nerd—about a woman who takes her Halloween costume a little too seriously. I also read “A Divorced Man’s Guide to the First Year,” which is exactly what it sounds like. I ended with the title story, “Welcome, Anybody,” which I’ll write about today.

“Welcome, Anybody” is about Jim, a guy who at the start of the story has lost his job. It’s a  too-typical scenario of a middle-aged guy just getting pushed out because the company is realigning, going younger and cheaper. Jim heads home, though surprisingly, not all that bothered by what’s happened. He has a nice severence, some savings, and is looking forward to starting again. He’s especially excited to be home early so he can attend his son Daniel’s high school baseball game, which he hasn’t been able to do all season.

Jim’s wife, Nancy, is quite as excited—not so easy for a middle-aged guy to get a new career—and makes Jim pick up the Reverend for the game. The Reverend is Jim’s dad; he and Jim don’t get along. Turns out, the Reverend is a reverend (go figure) and sometime around high school, Jim stopped going to church. Jim played ball then, too, the same school as Daniel, and basically gave up his faith to focus more on getting a scholarship, maybe even drafted. Neither happened, father and son grew apart, and then all of sudden, it’s thirty years later and Jim is unemployed and driving his dad to the same field he went to instead of church.

McConnell spends most of the rest of the story with Jim and the Reverend in the bleachers, bickering, trying to one-up each other with Daniel, who’s the starting pitcher for today’s game. Jim taught Daniel a lot but hasn’t been to any games, while the Reverend hasn’t missed one yet. Daniel’s day is up and down, but neither Jim nor his dad seem to notice: They’re too busy acting like children, bastardizing the purity that should be watching Daniel on the field.

The resolution of this story is real and true, the feeling I got at the end of all of McConnell’s stories. She has the uncanny skill of finding the extraordinary in the slightly above ordinary. Jim has lost his job, certainly a landmark day for him, but not all that uncommon in the grand scheme of twenty-first century fiction. Yet, McConnell makes the most of it, making the story work, surprising me and convincing me all at once. Same thing with that waitress in “Debris,” McConnell turning a memorable anecdote into a life-altering, existential moment. Ditto for the pregnant couple, for Supergirl, and the newly divorced dad. Sure, these are big days for all of them, finding themselves in these peculiar jams, but Jen McConnell knows exactly what she’s doing, how to proceed, making for memorable fiction. Welcome, Anybody is a testament to her talent, distinct and viable, honest and enduring.

83102209_10107406881112880_7785141120404553728_n

January 21, 2020: “The Sea Beast Takes a Lover” by Michael Andreasen

Good day to you, Story366!

Today is the Karen‘s birthday, so pretty much all of my energy went into giving her the best birthday I could muster. Karen usually doesn’t ask for much, just wanting a bit of a special day. She isn’t too subtle about dropping hints, which I appreciate, what she’d like for dinner, what kind of cake she’s envisioning, something small she may want as a gift. Taking mental notes for the past week or so, I was able to pull off—with the help of the oldest boy—chicken enchiladas and a from-scratch Italian wedding cake. Plus, we kind of cleaned the house so it didn’t look all ass in the birthday pictures. We just about got it all done when Karen came home, right when I was frosting the cake. I had a plan of hiding the cake somewhere (still not sure where I’d hide a cake, two curious cats roaming), telling Karen I blew it, that we’d go out for ice cream or something, then Bam! Italian wedding cake. When she caught me with spatula in hand, there died the ruse.

In the end, Karen was pretty thrilled after a hard day at work—production day—to get the dinner she wanted and the cake she wanted, not really expecting either, not with what a cranky mess I was when she left this morning. I rose to the occasion and I’m glad. More importantly, I got the oldest boy in on everything, making sure to tell him how much this would mean to his mom today. It would have been easy to order something out, get a cake at the store, but since Karen hinted at enchiladas and pineapple coconut pecan cake, that’s what she got. I wanted him to know that special days are important, even for adults, especially when they lose their mom twelve days prior. Best of all, it sunk in, and not once did he ask when we’d be done or if he could quit and do something else. Proud of that boy.

Happy birthday, Karen!

Got to my reading late today, but still got to spend a solid hour with Michael Andreasen‘s 2018 collection, The Sea Beast Takes a Lover, brought to you by our friends at Dutton. Not sure what’s taken me so long to get to this book, one I’ve had for a while. I also remember it being well received when it came out, on a lot of year-end best-of lists. Cake eaten and sugar coma setting in, I turned on a lamp and got myself a-reading.

Whoah, boy, what a collection of stories! Andreasen’s been published in some of the best venues out there, is on this fancy imprint of Penguin, and has acquired a lot of accolades. After reading the first three stories in The Sea Beast Takes a Lover, it’s easy to see why. These stories are a force, slamming me right in the face with big concepts, irregular perspectives, and detailed, introspective narratives. Andreasen really hits the ground running with the excellent “Our Fathers at Sea,” an alternate-near-future-dystopia story where our old folks, when it’s their time, are shuffled into fancy crates, lifted by helicoptors, and dropped into the sea, where they sink to the next stages of their lives. The story follows a guy spending the last day with his father before shipping him off, the whole story presented as a stylized monologue, first person addressing second person. It’s a stunner. Next up was “Bodies in Space,” about a guy kidnapped by aliens while screwing a coworker, extramaritally, in the back of his car. The aliens then use the couple for research and display purposes, à la Billy Pilgrim and Montana Wildhack. Eventually he is set free, returning to a wife who, in search of his missing person, has uncovered his affair.

I’m writing about the third and title story, “The Sea Beast Takes a Lover,” because, well, it’s really fantastic, too. This story is set on a ship, a ship that has been taken by a sea beast, wrapped in its many giant tentacles. The sea beast isn’t interested in eating the sailors or simply destroying the vessel—it has amorous intentions, has embraced it romantically. This has gone on for weeks. The story is told by the last remaining officer (save the Admiral), an ensign who is more or less the straight man. He narrates the proceedings as rationally as possible, given the situation. The boat sinks several inches a day—the sea beast is tender, patient lover—despite constant bailing and pumping. Smaller tentacles wrap around the ship, randomly, the seamen never knowing when one will crawl up its pantleg, or worse, drag him off the bow and into the sea (there’s a particularly amusing scene where someone uses one to practice tying knots). Everyone carries an effigy of himself around as well, little facsimiles of themselves, working to make them as accurate as possible. The bosun is up in the crow’s nest with a sniper’s rifle, shooting at coconuts, yelling down to the closest man that he’d better not cross him, lest his head be like that coconut; this happens constantly in the background, unnerving the crap out of everyone, like that kid tossing firecrackers during the coke deal scene in Boogie Nights.

Oh, and the admiral has turned cannibal. He’s eaten several of his men.

This story may use en medias res as well as any story I’ve read. I can’t picture the story unfolding any other way, the boat already in the beast’s clutches when we start. This allows Andreasen to skip the origin story and just dive into the characters, like the bosun, the admiral, Toby (who’s cutting a porthole so everyone can see the beast’s eye), and Fujian woman, who stowed away in what might be the worst decision ever. Our ensign navigates us through it all, giving “The Sea Beast Takes a Lover” kind of a George Saunders feel, one of his early amusement park stories: an average guy trying to get by, the world coming undone around him, clowns on his left, jokers on his right. Everyone is obviously doomed, but nobody’s paying close enough attention to figure it out.

The Sea Beast Takes a Lover is an impressive debut by a writer who exudes talent, from each and every pore. My first mission today was to give Karen a good birthday. That accomplished, my next was to read and write about a good book. Michael Andreasen gave me that, and then some. Can’t recommend this one enough.

82874255_10107405561198000_1513825317272158208_n

 

January 20, 2020: “How to Sit” by Tyrese Coleman

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Story366!

In 2016, when I last did this blog every single day, I tried to mark holidays the best I could, finding a love story for Valentine’s Day, a scary story on Halloween, even a story about Ronald Reagan for President’s Day. It didn’t always work out—I’m not that great of a planner—but when it did, I felt like … I don’t know, like I was doing something extra-special. Just in case anyone was paying attention.

Today is MLK, Jr. Day, a day I didn’t have to go to work and my boys didn’t have to go to school. Every year on this day, I try to impart some of Dr. King’s wisdom on my sons, for them to understand that today wasn’t just a day for them to sleep in, play video games, and raid the fridge. Luckily, Springfield held its annual Multicultural Festival today—something we found out about because of Scouts and a badge requirement—so we got dressed and headed to the Oasis Suites & Convention Center to take a looksee. We were going to learn about other people’s cultures, one way or another.

This Festival started out suspiciously, as we entered the ballroom (after I paid five bucks; the boys were free) and found a few rows of tables, convention-style, like the AWP bookfair, if you’ve seen that. I was expecting to see each of the tables to be featuring some element of multiculturalism: There’d be a Latino table. A Native table. An LGBTQ table. Etc.

Nope.

The event seemed to be a community outreach situation as much as anything, as a lot of the city’s non-profits had tables and passed out literature and sundries: Both of my boys grabbed a tote bag and filled it with candy, pens, pamphlets, and other branded material, plastic drinking cups and stress-relief balls. We met reps from Cancer Research from the Ozarks, the Aids Project of the Ozarks, the Ozarks Area Community Action Corporation, and the United Way. The firefighters, cops, and state police each had a table. Both hospital chains in town had a table. So did Springfield’s primary mental health center. Okay, not multicultural, but good to know about these places and the good work they do. And get some free pens and Dum Dums.

In addition, we also met people from each of the three universities in town (MSU, Drury, and Evangel), folks from a few different banks (money, not blood), and Springfield’s third-most-prevalent ambulance-chasing TV lawyer. I was excited to see him in person, this rustic hippy in the flesh. The Karen and I poke fun at this guy a lot: He seems like a cool, down-to-earth dude with his beard and dressed shirt tucked into jeans, but we’re just not sure that’s what we’d want in a lawyer.

Where was the multiculturalism, though? All this was neat and I scored a whole lotta schwag, but wasn’t the reason I drove across town and paid five bucks.

The multicultural aspect finally arrived on the stage area, where a series of performances was scheduled. Suddenly, folks in Native and other traditional garb were cloistering. The festivities started off with an aerial fitness group, women in sparkly outfits doing gymnastics on rings and banners and such, fifteen feet off the ground. Then we really got going: We saw a family from Uganda sing some smile-inspiring original songs. We saw about twenty young Asian women—I didn’t catch what nation they represented—do a coreographed dance to a pop rock song. The highlight was the traditional Native dances performed by a family from the Wyandotte Nation. Sadly, we had to split after that, but could have also caught some Greek, Latino, Japanese, and Korean performers. Overall, a nice event, multicultural immersion (briefly) achieved. And we talked about Dr. King on the way home, who was quoted more than once over the course of the day.

For Story366, I’m pointedly covering an African-American writer today, a writer I’ve long admired, and a colleague of mine from SmokeLong Quarterly, Tyrese ColemanI enjoyed reading from her collection, How to Sit, out in 2018 from Mason Jar Press. This collection is subtitled A Memoir in Stories and Essays, and like Tim O’Brien with The Things They Carried, Coleman doesn’t indicate which is which in the book. So, it’s possible what I’ve read today, what I’m writing about, isn’t really a short story, but an essay. Biography, even. And that’s fine. On top of that, How to Sit is a memoir, meaning these are linked stories, already the fourth such collection I’ve covered in the first twenty days of the year. Cool cool, says I. Onward.

“How to Sit,” the title story (I’m just going to say story from here on out), is also the first story in the book and sets the tone. Here, we meet T, a young African-American woman (who in all likelihood is our author). T was raised by her grandmother, her own mother abandoning her at birth; sadly, this is exactly what the grandmother did to T’s mother after giving birth to her. History repeats itself, even if people work to fight it, themes we find throughout this collection.

Coleman writes shorts, mostly, so this story doesn’t take up a lot of space. Coleman, however, is able to pack a lot into these scant pages, making her stories lush and full. Coleman reveals a lot about T’s life, aside from just how she was raised. We find out T was molested as a kid, her grandmother worked as a prositute, and that her grandmother has a particular preference for how young ladies should sit, hence the title. By the end, we see how this generational story comes together, how some mistakes are rectified, while others continue to haunt.

“How to Sit” the story introduces a dynamic, establishes a setting, and introduces key characters, all while managing to tell a compelling story. Reading further into the collection, we witness T growing up, telling a much broader tale. Somtimes this doesn’t necessarily connect to the happenings of the title piece, but can’t help but be informed by them at the same time. Every kid who experiences trauma, even to the extent that T has, will react differently. Some are unable to recover, others rise above. Investigating Tyrese Coleman’s honest and eloquent collection reveals a writer willing to share her own experiences as a woman, as an African-American, and as a self, all through her remarkable talent.

83927621_10107401740539630_7540681851183038464_n

January 19, 2020: “Wild Milk” by Sabrina Orah Mark

Hey, there, Story366! Good Sunday to you.

Today I’m a bit sidetracked from what I would have wanted to accomplish by a couple of NFL games, the conference championships. It’s the semifinals in other sports. The final four. With the Bears middling at 8-8 this year, I didn’t have a lot of interest in football. Really, this is the best day to watch NFL football if you’re going to watch it. The four best teams (hypothetically), so much on the line, all without the distractions and typical anti-climax of the Super Bowl. Two of my brothers, separately, talked to me about these games during phone calls. I talked back. When I remembered these games were on TV today, I made a plan to do laundry and cook—me and the oldest boy made chili and then chocolate chip cookies—things that would keep me around the house. The younger boy is even kind of interested in watching with me. Not a bad way to spend a Sunday.

Notice, maybe, that I’m speaking of watching these games like I’m apologizing. It’s like I’m taking part in some unholy ritual, trying to explain why I’m sacrificing small mammals at a pentagramed altar in the woods. I like sports, like being entertained by these professional leauges, what they have to offer. I have no reason to apologize. So why am I? Those of you who know me know that as soon as Major League Baseball starts up again, a lot of these posts will be peppered with talk of the Cubs. I usually watch every Cubs game, at least 150 out of 162. Why, then, am I so embarrassed about watching football?

My students, not to mention my kids, know the nineties formed me. I was a kid of the eighties, yeah, but turned 17 in 1990, meaning a lot of my cultural influence happened in tht decade. I graduated high school the year of the first Lollapalooza, the year Nevermind came out, what most everyone associates with the nineties: alternative music. That’s true, but they’re leaving out some really important landmarks: Bill Clinton. Email/internet. Terribly boring prestige movies winning Best Picture.

And sports entertainment culture.

As much as Kurt Cobain and the Clintons and Leo & Kate yelling King of the world! on the tip of that doomed CGI effect, the nineties remind me of the boom of the modern sports bar. It was the heyday of ESPN and their hourly news show, Sportscenter. Then, soon after, the newly defined headquarters for this crowd: the sports bar. Giant TVs everywhere you look, dude-bros high-fiving across high-top tables, overpriced chicken wings and cheap domestic light beer filling your gut.

I ate it up.

Twenty-something me couldn’t get enough. Sports? Check. Every game, everywhere you look? Check. Deep-fried bar food? Check. Patronizing servers? Check. Specials on terrible beer? Check. Overwhelming masculinity? Check, check, check. I lived that life, from the time I was old enough to drink, lasting about fifteen years, until my first son was born. After that, I simply didn’t have the time (or resources) for this type of nonsense. When I was young? I can say without hesitation that I spent four to seven days out of every week at places like this, consuming what was being offered. I followed every sport, never missed a game, and spent a great deal of my money—and credit—at these joints. My relationships were either formed or fostered there. Bartenders knew my name.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with this. Sports are fun. Chicken wings are delicious. And if you don’t know any better, a Coors light kind of tastes okay. Add in darts and pool and electronic trivia, and man, a decade and a half can really fly by.

It was weird, then, some time around ten years ago, when I did a reading at a bar in Bucktown. The scene: No TVs. No beer on tap. No games. No jalapeño poppers. There was a bar and a bartender. The drinks? Specialized, high-end cocktails, poetically described with calligraphy on parchment. The food? No food. The entertainment? The reading. And talking. The high-fiving? Not so much. I probably walked inside and looked around like Dorothy walking out of her house in Munchkinland. What the fuck was this place? Did they not have a liquor license? Did I just stumble into a speakeasy?

By the time the night was over, I was on board. Sure, what I’ve described a typical hipster bar, the kind of place pretty common these days, the anti-sports bar, the anti-Buffalo Wild Wings. Those specialized, high-end cocktails are as ridiculous as any ice bucket special, twelve bucks for an ounce and a half of gin and some goofy plant that shouldn’t be in a drink. But after nearly two decades in the sports bar scene? My first hipster bar was as welcoming as fresh mint sprinkled into your vodka lemonade.

What does this have to do with watching football today? Not sure. But I watch less sports now. I’m more constructive with my time. Just not necessarily today (though I’ve done six loads of laundry and have eaten twice as many cookies).

All of this has even less to do with Sabrina Orah Mark and her book, Wild Milk, out in 2018 from Dorothy: A Publishing Project. I don’t remember when I got this book, but have been interested in Dorothy and its books for a while. They seem to put out nice products and have interesting authors. Mark’s book certainly fits both bills. I was happy to spend some time with it today.

“Wild Milk,” the title and lead story, is about mom who drops off her not-yet-one-year-old son at a new daycare. There, the teacher, Miss Birdy, gives assurances of a great experience, which includes the first day’s activity: working with a shovel and some dirt. The kids present are all babies, but there they are, on the floor, chewing on the shovels and getting dirty with the dirt. Mom leaves and returns to glowing reports. Her boy is a wonder, a savant, a pleasure to be around.

Mark’s stories aren’t long—all five to eight pages, maybe fifteen hundred words each—so the plot moves quickly. Mark also writes in short, to-the-point paragraphs, in a style I would easily call minimalism, clear, stark facts and short, terse dialogue pulling us through each. After the news of the great first day, things quickly start to unravel for our Mom. She finds herself accosted by a mom with daughters who judges her for having a son. The next day, her son seems to disappear. He thinks his name is Shreds. Her milk is deemed, by Miss Birdy, to be unnacceptable, wild. Things aren’t going so well after all and are getting worse.

I won’t reveal much more about the plot of “Wild Milk,” as again, the story’s not that long. On top of that, I’m not sure these stories in Mark’s collection are really about what happens, how they end. They certainly don’t have conventional resolutions, but then again, they aren’t very conventional in any way. I keep thinking of words like surrealdreamlikeabsurd, and experimental, though I don’t like any of those words, not exactly, to describe what Mark does. I did find myself trying to interpret this story, and I keep thinking of Lynch’s Eraserhead, how it seems to be about the fears and trepidations of a new father, the dilemma of worry, the nightmare of possibe failure. The mom in “Wild Milk” emotes a lot of those feelings, people judging her, her child in jeopardy, her own identity as a mom inadequate—even her milk’s not good enough. I’m not sure if this is what Mark was going for, but it’s what I took away.

The other stories I read from the book, the next half dozen or so, have the same feel, a similar style. Mark not only employs the same minimalistic approach, but I started to pick up on other patterns. Conversations take sudden, inexplicable turns. Characters appear out of nowhere and have deep impacts. Illogical conclusions are commonday. Rash decisions lead to twists, to the unexpected. Somehow, this makes Mark’s work really exciting to read. I ate these stories up, one after another, never knowing what I was going to get.

Before in this blog, I’ve noted how much I admire writers like Donald Barthelme, William H. Gass, and Amelia Gray. They’re writers I very much like to read, writers who inspired me, but writers I rarely teach in my classes: I’m afraid students will ask me to explain what all the stories mean, why these authors made the choices they made; I’d have to tell them I don’t know in so many cases. Sabrina Orah Mark and her stories in Wild Milk feel very much like those writers’ stories, exciting exercises of ingenuity and fiction-forward vision. That’s some good company, the greatest compliment I can pay this talented author.

83906478_10107395584750880_5576275633761157120_n

January 18, 2020: “The Smallest Cousin” by Christian Felt

Good evening, Story366! Glad to be writing another post today.

My Saturday started with an Eagle Scout Court of Honor, which if you don’t know, is a ceremony where a Scout receives his Eagle Scout badge. The kid who got this award has been a model Scout since I’ve been involved with this organization, a true inspiration, and an all-around good guy. He’s the third son in this family to earn this honor and the seventh boy from our Troop in the last year. There was a long, touching ceremony with his family, friends, leaders, and fellow Scouts. Good for this kid.

My oldest boy took part in the proceedings today, as did a lot of the other Scouts in the Troop, showing their support for their friend. With these seven boys finishing—”Eagling out”—and another due later this month, my son has suddenly become one of the older and highest-ranked Scouts left in the Troop. He’s been in for three years and is only 13, but if he works hard, he could probably earn his Eagle within a year, if not sooner. That would be a major accomplishment and honor for him and our family (I never finished, but my oldest brother did). My son has dedicated himself so far—three years in Scouts BSA (formerly Boy Scouts) and five years in Cub Scouts. He’s learned a lot, gained a ton of confidence, and has had experiences he never would have had otherwise. We’ve spelunked, paddle-boarded, backpacked, and sculpted, and that’s just in the past six months. Scouting is not a perfect organization—revelations of all the sex abuse scandals have been particularly sobering—but Scouting has been good for him. I’m glad that I’ve been along for the ride, to protect him, to guide him, and join in on the overwhelmingly positive aspects we’ve experienced. Stay tuned: Maybe by the end of this year, I’ll be writing about his Eagle Court of Honor, too.

Last night, I read a good hunk of Christian Felt‘s debut 2018 collection The Lightning Jar, winner of the John Simmons Short Fiction Award from the University of Iowa Press. Like Kate Wisel’s book yesterday and Siel Ju’s book last week, The Lightning Jar is a collection of linked stories. What makes Felt’s book distinct from those two is that his book has two different story sequences in it, which don’t seem to ever relate (though I kept thinking that they would eventually converge; I was wrong). The first sequence is about two children, Amanda and Karl, on vacation at the Lake with their mother. The second sequence is about a kid named Mons. I read all of the stories in the Amanda/Karl line, then got to the Mons stories, wasn’t sure who Mons was, or why Amanda and Karl disappeared. I skimmed through the stories after that, looking for the two original kids, but didn’t find them. I’m well versed in Amanda and Karl. Mons? I barely knew thee.

“The Smallest Cousin” is the first story in the book, thus kicking off the Amanda/Karl stories. Amanda and Karl are off at the Lake with their mom, who pretty much lets them have the run of the place, filling their days how they choose. They run into the Locals (who are the locals), the Knudsens—kids from another family also summering at the Lake—and characters with archetypal monikers like the Gypsy, the Doctor, and the Guest. We meet all of those people in later stories, though: In “The Smallest Cousin,” we simply meet Amanda and Karl’s cousins, about a dozen of them, who spend a few days with our family at the Lake. The cousins take up a lot of space, are noisy, and try to play the kids’ games by new, self-serving rules. This drives Amanda crazy. Bugging Karl is the youngest and smallest cousin, who is sleeps under Karl’s bed during persistent storms. When he’s too scared to even hide under there, Karl lets him sleep up with him, which seems cute, but both original kids will be glad when their cousins depart and the Lake is all theirs once again.

Before this happens, though, Karl gets the idea in his head that he’d like to capture some lightning in a jar—hey, that’s the book’s title!—as it would be cool to have a jar of lightning, something he could use to read by, or just to have. Good thing for him the storms have been heavy with lightning and thunder. Karl takes as many jars as he can find and places them on the beach.

“The Smallest Cousin” isn’t a long story, so I don’t want to give too much away. I’ll say this: The smallest cousin and this jar of lightning eventually … intersect. By the end of the story, the situation has definitely changed, in a significant and magical sort of way.

The second story in the book, “The Lightning’s Ghost,” picks up right after the first, and so and so on, until this cousin/lightning jar plot line is figured out … or at least reaches its zenith. It’s a story sequence that feels a lot like a fairy tale, though maybe not specifically a fairy tale. It might be a fable. It might be magical realism. It might be the imagination of children with a lot of time on their hands and nobody keeping them in check. These kids, off having adventures by the Lake, in the woods, running into Doctors and Guests and such, feels like kids from British children’s stories, The Chronicles of NarniaMary Poppins, Peter Pan, and those kids in the Peter Pan-inspiring Finding Neverland. The setting is non temporal, maybe in the late 1900s, maybe in the 1950s, maybe today. Felt also cultivates an ambience of magic with his descriptions and language; dolls have conversations, ghosts haunt, and lightning whirs around in jars. Even the use of nondescript, initially capped words like “Doctor” and “Book” lend an air of wonder, sparking its own, unique lyricism.

In The Lightning Jar, Christian Felt creates a world—worlds—where he can make his own rules, where stories can be and are anything and everything. I had a lot of fun reading this book, seeing Felt build on his adventures, story after story, offering up his own brand of wonderland.

83190138_10107395287102370_7501179361924481024_n

 

 

January 17, 2020: “Hoops” by Kate Wisel

Good Friday to you, Story366! After being out of town for three days this week for that funeral, today feels a lot like a Monday. It was the best kind of Monday, though, because as soon as I thought about it, it was really Friday. Nothing better than a Monday that’s actually a Friday.

Somehow, nothing in Springfield was canceled today. Again, not to talk weather, but there’s this pretty severe ice storm cutting through Missouri today, yet MSU and Springfield Public Schools were open. Usually, if there’s even a hint of ice, they shut everything down, too many curvy, hilly roads for the buses to maneuver safely. The Karen even told the boys last night that they were unlikely to have school today, eliciting big smiles and woo-hooing. We were both shocked when the alarm went off at six, no phone call, no text, nothing that canceled school. Within a minute I was up, shaking the older boy awake, and making eggs.

The good thing about all this unexpected school was I got into my office and accomplished a whole lot, the government dutifully watching over my kids. Being gone three days in the middle of the week—the first week of the semester—isn’t all that easy. One of my classes is online, so I was posting lectures and answering emails from truck stops. I also had a lot of other stuff going down, including the release of a new Moon City Press book, Roundabout by Phong NguyenThat’s slightly less easy to handle from a Flying J. We blasted away, anyway, and overall, I’m hoping a lot of people check out this fantastic new novel.

For today’s post, I read from Driving in Cars With Homeless Men by Kate Wisel, out last year as the most recent winner of Pitt‘s Drue Heinz Award. I’ve covered a whole bunch of these Heinz winners on this blog and always see why the author has won this prestigious contest, why they beat out so many other entries. Wisel’s book is no exception, and in fact, is pretty extraordinary, quite the project, quite a wonderful book.

I’m covering the story “Hoops” today, kind of by default. It’s the first story in the book and more or less serves as an epigraph to the whole project. Driving in Cars With Homeless Men is practically a novel in stories, the entire linked, the continuous story of four young women: Selena, Frankie, Rassa, and Nat. “Hoops” starts out the book and is in a section with the subheading Us. It’s a short piece, onto even three pages long, and is the only story in Us. It’s also the only story in the entire book told in first-person plural narration, from the POV of all four girls as a collective. The rest of the book is split up into different subsections, each titled with one of the character’s names. Serena gets the first section, plus a couple of more; Frankie and Raffa each get two sections, and Nat gets one. The stories in each section are all from that particular character’s POV, though they vary between first, second, and third person. All of the other three characters randomly show up in each character’s perspectives, too depending one what’s going on with the overall narrative, how each of them fits in during that particular time. It’s a really ambitious project to undertake, but Wisel executes it with precision, telling the story of each woman, not letting herself be dictated by any particular order, balance, or perspective. She tells the stories she wants to tell and it works. Extremely well.

“Hoops” is the introduction to these women, to their lives, and it’s both compelling and engrossing. Told in that collective-narrator we/us style, it follows the foursome as high school girls, on a whirlwind of an existence through the streets of Boston. The girls, to put it simply, are up to no good. They’re drinking, vandalizing, trespassing, shoplifting, smoking whatever they can get their hands on (including crushed Altoids—that’s a thing?!), and running from the police. In fact, they’re wanted by the cops at the start of the story, loitering around a basketball court and watching the boys play, forced to make a run for it. There’s a bit of a mess they’ve gotten into—which I won’t go into here—making them live the lives of wanted women, women who don’t get caught. At least not yet. At least not by the cops.

And that’s it, at least for the plot of “Hoops.” I don’t want to undermine how important this story is to the collection, though, setting the tone, establishing the backstory for these characters, four girls with the run of the city, no curfews, no one caring what they’re up to, where they are, or when. Wisel keeps the pace quick, too, with a rash of vivid details, one new fix after another, barely stopping to mark a season change, a new location, ma new kind of trouble. It’s a rapid-fire intro to her quartet, a unique and ingenius way to set up this particular project.

From there, I read at least one story from each of the four characters’ sections, time moving forward in the overall narrative as well. Each woman has her own stories, her own ups and downs, her own personality and flaws. They face unique challenges, have distinct desires, yet always come around to each other (mostly). They face a constant stream of conflicts, often of their own making, though sometimes not—remember, it’s not like anyone had put them on a righteous path. In the half dozen stories I read, there’s a litany of the worst kind of obstacles, from unwanted pregnancy to drug addiction, to rape and abuse. There’s opportunity, too; I won’t want to make it seem like all of them are homeless drug addicts in some revolving rehab line. After “Hoops,” we pick up a few years later and they’re all college students, for one. And they all seem to engage in somewhat normal relationships with men. They’re trying to escape their past, but the past keeps catching up to them. Serena, in an early story, can’t bring herself to like a straight-laced guy who tries to date her, takes her to nice places. He seems legit, acting romantic and sweet, even when he has every opportunity to be a shitbag. Serena doesn’t buy it because she keep waiting for things to turn dark. When they don’t, she blocks him from her phone and avoids him. Her past has broken her. She’s not the only one, either. Thus is the reality Wisel has created. It’s stark, but she paints it so well.

What a tremendous book Driving in Cars With Homeless Men is. What a great project, to tell this overall story in this way, a collection of stories detailing a collection of women. Kate Wisel’s really come up with something here in her debut collection. It’s a definitive wow.

82562536_10107391090881630_9147870372966694912_n

January 16, 2020: “The Goat Fish and the Lover’s Knot” by Jack Driscoll

Hey, there, Story366! Good to be writing this to you now.

Really good, actually, after twelve hours on the road. I’ve mentioned my mother-in-law’s recent passing in my posts this past week, the memorial ceremony happening yesterday in Southeast Ohio, us needing to get back today to beat this latest winter storm. The Karen and I made a plan last night that involved us getting up at six and on the road by seven, and by golly, by seven-twenty, we on our way. Usually, we talk big about early wake-ups and departures, but this time, we stuck to it. I’m liking the night driving less and less these days, and if you throw in some freezing rain, well, we’d have to spend another night in a hotel, the boys would miss another day of school, and, well, we just wanted to be home. We drove straight through, stopping for gas a few times and once for lunch at a Subway, and pulled Springfield around six-thirty. In all, we put fifteen hundred miles on the car in about sixty hours, the middle hunk of that tending to the mourning. We’re spent. Onward with this post.

I read today’s story, “The Goat Fish and the Lover’s Knot,” last night in the Super 8, thinking maybe I’d do all my reading, a night ahead of time, even lumber over to the desk on the corner and knock out this post. That didn’t happen. As soon as I finished, I was toast, and everyone else in the room wanted lights out. I could hole-up in the bathroom and read some more of Jack Driscoll‘s book, or go to bed. With the early plan in place, I went to bed.

On the way home, I talked about this story, “The Goat Fish and the Lover’s Knot,” with the Karen, trying to keep it in my brain, trying to figure out what I’d write about. It’s the first and titular story in Driscoll’s latest collection, The Goat Fish and the Lover’s Knot, out in 2017 from Wayne State University Press. I’ve known Driscoll’s work for a while, getting to publish a cool piece of his in Mid-American Review in … 1996?!?! Yikes, it has been a while. But Driscoll has been a staple in contemporary lit for a while, spinning his Michigan yarns for our pleasure for decades.

Oh, speaking of Michigan, an interlude: For a long time, Driscoll was the artist-in-residence at Interlochen Center for the Arts, this prestigious kids arts camp in the Wolverine State. I noted this when I saw Driscoll taught there, twenty-plus years ago, because one of my high school girlfriends spent every summer there, learning to sing, dance, act, etc. Anyway, I remember some time later, I read that the folksinger (and occasional poet) Jewel also spent her summers at Interlochen. I remember thinking about it for a second, then realizing that Jewel and my ex-girlfriend didn’t look all that disimilar. And when I started thinking about how famous people sometimes look different, perhaps more glamorous, after becoming famous—getting some work done, hiring a professional stylist, etc.—I wondered, for like five seconds, if my ex-girlfriend was Jewel.

Oh my god! I used to date Jewel! 

Like I said, this lasted all of five seconds.

But for five seconds, I thought I’d dated Jewel.

Anyway, “The Goat Fish and the Lover’s Knot” is about Wayne, a guy looking back on the summer he was 14. Most of the story is in past tense and takes place during that summer, but by the end, we get one of those revelations that this story’s been told by someone the whole time, someone reminiscing on his past, sort of a stylized monologue. But really, it’s just a past-tense story up until that end point.

Wayne is a pretty normal kid living in Michigan. He’s working class, doesn’t like school, and is interested in girls, but not having much luck with them so far. To switch things up, he agrees to spend the last month of summer up at a lake cabin with his best friend, Darwin, and Darwin’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. LaVann (how Driscoll refers to them in the story). Mr. LaVann made a lot of money in deep friers, drives a bitchin’ convertible, and is an easy-going sort-of guy. Mrs. LaVann, maybe twenty years younger than her husband, is a trophy wife, looking like an Eastern European supermodel but born and raised in Bay City. Despite his father’s objections—he’s a hard-nosed, working-class guy who want his son to get a job—Wayne spends an entire month fishing, boating, and living off of his friend’s parents. Sounds like a nice summer.

Wayne and Darwin spend a lot of time on the water—that’s what people do in Michigan in the summer, and certainly what Driscoll does in a lot of his stories. They’re young men loving life, and that narrator from the future, looking back, is certainly fond of this time. Driscoll has no problem spending a lot of space on this character, simply letting him be himself in this environment, eeking out details as he goes along, the overall plot not entirely clear for quite a few pages. I didn’t mind. Driscoll’s graceful prose and vivid nostalgia are a joy to take in.

The plot thickens when Wayne spies the lovely Mrs. LaVann taking a moonlight shower at the spigot outside the house. He had just heard something amiss coming from the LaVanns’ room—I think it was the LaVanns having sex, but could have been an argument, even abuse—and then watched as she strutted naked across the grass and washed herself in the bright darkness. Wayne’s interests certainly stray from swimming and fishing thereafter.

In fact, right after Mrs. LaVann’s shower, Wayne has the nerve to go outside—not something I could have mustered, I have to admit—and pretends he is slipping down to the dock for some late-night fishing. Mrs. LaVann, just recently wrapped in a skimpy towel, engages him like nothing’s amiss, and the two form a bond. Maybe she’s flirting when she says she wants to swim in his wake when he’s out on the boat? She has to know that Wayne’s 14, that she’s naked, and he’s 14, right?

I don’t want to go into any more of the plot, as that would reveal too much. I’ll mention that bacl in the first paragraph, our narrator tells us that Mrs. LaVann went missing soon after this month on the lake, that everyone thought she might be dead; she’d actually just skipped town. Not sure why Driscoll thought to reveal this fact, and right away, but it definitely has an effect on the story, on my expectations, on how I read the story. This isn’t Driscoll’s first rodeo. He knew what he was doing.

I liked “The Goat Fish and the Lover’s Knot” a lot (the title comes from names of constellations, by the way), pretty typical of how I’ve enjoyed Driscoll’s efforts for years. I liked the other stories I read from the collection, too. I read “The Alchemist’s Apprentice,” mostly picking it from the middle because it’s dedicated to Breaking Bad‘s Vince Gilligan (I can see the connection). I skipped around more, reading “The Good Father” and “Here’s How it Works,” too. All of these stories feature teenage boys, working-class lads from Michigan, all of them with either absent or domineering fathers. All of them face key moments in their lives. All of them, at story’s end, are more or less left adrift, no clear resolutions to be found. These are young men in flux, at the crux of their lives. I used to be that kid. I think I still am.

Jack Driscoll’s stories, at this point, are easily identifiable to me, as he works so often with the same themes, in the same setting. I can’t say any of it ever gets old; it’s not like I’m dying to see him experiment with forms or language or write a YA sci-fi novel. He’s a master of his craft, and The Goat Fish and the Lover’s Knot is the latest example of someone in full command of his skills.

83171429_10107389869713860_8338857735953055744_n

 

 

 

 

January 15, 2020: “Night Beast” by Ruth Joffre

Hello, Story366. I hope you’re having a good one.

Nothing to sugarcoat here: I just came back from Karen‘s mom’s funeral service. It was a different kind of service, really more of a memorial, held at the American Legion Hall up the street from Elsie Craigo’s apartment. She enjoyed going there several nights a week, drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, and being around her longtime friends. Those longtime friends were there celebrating, too, more or less throwing a party for Karen and her siblings, a tribute to this great woman. It was moving, just to be there with my wife, at her side for this, but also to see how this extended family loved my mother-in-law. They prepared a potluck with burgers, hot dogs, beans, chicken, and a lot of sides. Everyone toasted her with Bud Lights and Busch Lights and Diet Cokes. We did a lap around the bar, thanking everyone for coming (when really, we were the strangers there, all of these people the Legion regulars). Everyone hugged us and told us how much they loved Elsie. They told us they loved. We spent some time with Karen’s brother. Then it was time to go.

This is a lot different from the Catholic wakes and funerals of my entire life. Those start with two days of viewing in a stuffy funeral home, greeting loved ones while the body of the deceased looms at the front of the room. Then an early-morning wake up to get dressed in funeral clothes. Another brief viewing at the funeral home, followed by a procession to the church for a somber mass. Then the caravan to the cemetery, the kind with all the cars sporting that fluorescent FUNERAL sign in their windows so they don’t have to stop at traffic lights. Yet another ceremony at the gravesite. The lowering of the coffin. Dropping flowers down the hole. The tearful last good-bye.

Then we head to a place like the Legion, the VFW, or the K of C for the after-spread, usually family-style C-B-S (chicken-beef-sausage). So, both traditions end the same. Only with my Catholic experience, there’s all that extra ceremony—if Catholics love anyting, it’s ceremony—not to mention cost. Tonight, it was a relief to see all these loving people, honoring my mother-in-law in their jeans, flannels, T-shirts, and Trump caps, hoisting cans of beer. They loved Elsie. They were there for us, supportive rocks in our time of need. Leaving out a lot of that spectacle, all the sad, stiff ritual, didn’t make this event any less of a tribute to this great woman. It’s what she wanted, after all. It was perfect Elsie.

Sorry to Ruth Joffre for landing today, but thus is the nature of the Story366: Someone has to go on the day of my mother-in-law’s funeral. I’ve been itching to get to Joffre’s book for a while, so when scanning book possibilities for today, I made sure to grab something I was really looking forward to. So I grabbed Night Beast and Other Stories, Joffre’s debut collection, out in 2018 from Black Cat, a division of Grove Atlantic. I’ve seen Joffre’s stories around, including one, “General, Minister, Horse, Cannon,” in Mid-American Review (though after my tenure). I remember liking what I read, but was glad to sit down with this whole, inevitable book.

I read the opening story in Night Beast first, a really cool sci-fiesque story called “Nitrate Nocturns,” set in a world where everyone has a little digital timer in their wrist, the numbers revealing a countdown to when that person will meet their soul mate. Some people meet their soul mate when they’re 2, so they know their soul mate their whole lives and never have to wait. Other people, like the protagonist in this story, have a huge countdown, meaning she won’t meet hers until she’s 64 (though this story is about how that changes). I loved this piece and easily could have written about it, too.

I read some of the shorter works in the middle of the book, then read the last and title story, “Night Beast,” which I’m writing about now. “Night Beast” is about Gemma, a young woman at her brother’s wedding, being held at her sister-in-law’s family estate. Joffre tells us right away that Gemma’s future sister-in-law, Sydney, is a voracious sleepwalker. She likes to dance pirouettes in the middle of the night—Gemma’s brother told her this—which is a pretty interesting image by itself. What her brother doesn’t know is every time Gemma stays at their house (which seems to be pretty often), Sydney will come into her room in the middle of the night, crawl under the covers and between her legs, and go down on her—all while sleepwalking. Gemma is too embarrased to tell her brother. Or she thinks he’ll be too embarrassed to hear it. Or maybe, just maybe, she likes it when Sydney does this, as weird and innappropriate as it is (this is a type of rape, right?).

And by the way, Sydney—waking Sydney—doesn’t know anything about this, either.

Or does she?

So, Gemma is at this lush estate—Sydney comes from money—the kind of place where the hands-on, rich dad is out hoisting poles with the tent people and the servants outnumber the rooms (and there’s a lot of rooms). The story starts on the day before the wedding, and as you might guess, Gemma’s wondering what’s going to happen. Should she tell her brother what Sydney doess? Should she tell Sydney? Does she want it to happen again tonight, in this mansion, the night before the wedding? The answer to all three questions is yes: She should tell everyone, but she really wants it to happen again.

“Night Beast” is on the longer side, so there’s more to this tale than this dilemma. Gemma, like all of Joffre’s protagonists I met, is introspective, and the author has no problem spending a couple of paragraphs, or even pages, lost in thoughts, in speculation, in stream-of-consciousness. There are side adventures, too, like Gemma running into Sydney’s snippy dance troupe (Sydney dances when awake, too). Or Gemma flirting with the lovely Olivia, another guest staying the night at the estate, whose girlfriend will arrive the next day. The whole sleepwalking—sleepcunnilingus?—plot inhabits less than half the story. Joffre isn’t afraid to expand her worlds, her characters, to let us bask in her elegant, practical prose. I love this story for that, that there’s so much more to this than the creative, complex conceit. Joffre’s skills are above that, clearly. It’s truly a fantastic piece.

I enjoyed spending this afternoon with Night Beast, Ruth Joffre’s quite impressive debut collection. It was a hard day today, but if this project has taught me anything, an excellent book makes everything better.

82004521_10107385255376030_319453718946775040_n

January 14, 2020: “Bleachers” by Joseph Mills

Hello, Story366! A good day to you.

Yesterday, I noted how I’d begun my semester and I was crazy-busy and I didn’t get a chance to post until late (much like this evening, but for other reasons). What I didn’t mention was how I’d finished my shelving project yesterday morning as well, my goal before starting up with teaching again. It’s a project I talked about in detail in my Leigh Camacho Rourks post, the project that had me dusting, alphabetizing, and shelving all eight hundred or so story collections in my collection. The finished project, complete with polished floor, tchotchkes, and the older boy’s vampire jellyfish from pre-school, can be seen here:

81984183_10107381200262510_8379465127023345664_n

It pleases me, more than you’d guess, to see this all spread out, so celebrated. For someone as sloppy and disorganized as I am, it warms my heart to see my life’s ambition—short stories—so elegantly displayed, so prominently featured. When you collect books, this is what you envision, right? It’s finally come to pass. Sometimes I just pull this picture up on my phone and look at it—the way I sometimes look at pictures of my boys—and it makes me feel good. Like all is well with the world.

Of course, none of this includes our massive poetry collection, our novels and nonfiction, all our copies of Mid-American Review and Moon City Review, or all the lit mags containing our own stories and poems. The Karen notes that even if we had all the bookshelves to hold those other types of books, this room is going to run out of space to put them. We might have to knock out a wall and live without a bathroom. Or windows.

For today’s entry, I read from Joseph Mills’ new collection, Bleachers, out this past year from Press53. This collection is subtitled fifty-four linked fictions, and indeed, that’s what’s presented here, a series of shorts, two to four pages long, divided up into different subsections: “Pre-Game,” “First Half,” Halftime,” “Second Half,” and “Post Game,” varying amounts of the stories spread throughout each. This is because the book, in its linkedness, take place over the course of a youth soccer game. All of the characters in the story are the kids’ parents, in the crowd, watching the game as it unfolds. It’s real-time, in a sense, each piece moving us through the game, though what’s happening in the game is hardly the point. This book is about the people in the stands, who they are and why they’re there, and most prominently, what’s running through their minds. I read a dozen or so of these pieces and can’t recall there ever being a clear score, nor could I tell you who won. It’s not what this book’s about.

I’m focusing on “Bleachers” because it’s the title story, probably because that’s where the whole book takes place, in the bleachers. “Bleachers” the story is Kristy’s story in particular. Every story in Bleachers the book is about a different parent and Mills uses that story to tell us about that particular person in the crowd. There’s the mom who always used to mock the parents who brought blue camp chairs to sit in, but now is getting older and hides a camp chair in her trunk, becoming the object of her scorn. There’s the dad who wants to arrive early at the game, before they even set up the field, only his wife is perpetually late. There’s the guy who wishes they would coach like they did when he was a kid, screaming and swearing, a real antagonist to the everyone-gets-a-trophy mindset. Another mom and her husband argue over offering incentives for goals scored. Another dad eavesdrops on high school girls discussing their sex lives. There’s fifty-four of these, so I’m betting Mills covers every type of parent, every concern, every passion.

Kristy in the title story doesn’t like sitting on the bleachers. That’s her basic idiom, though Mills guides us through her thoughts on the matter, because that’s what he does in these stories. It works, I think, because that’s what we parents do at these games: We watch our kids, follow along, but really, our minds are half, at least, elsewhere. In Bleachers, Mills has his characters think about their roles, about who they are at this game, their very identity as a parent fan. All of them seem to be doing it at the same time, over the course of this ninety minutes or so. It’s like a big group-think, everyone focusing on themselves, which is a fascinating way to conceive a book, to tell an overall story.

Anyway, Kristy doesn’t like the bleachers. And who does? Other parents don’t like how hard and cold they are, what they do to their back. But they stick it out (or bring blue camp chairs or stand along the chainlink fence), because it’s like ninety minutes, tops, and this is what parents do: They dutifully watch their kids play soccer. Kristy, though, has a particular hatred for bleachers. Sure, she mentions the discomfort, and she also thinks a lot about her husband giving her a hard time. Why can’t they sit together? Why is she so far away? Can she even see the game from where she stands?

As it turns out, Kristy has a particular aversion to the bleachers, which doesn’t have anything to do with comfort or sightline. I know I haven’t said much about Kristy or this story, but hey, with two-page stories, I can’t get that into anything without revealing everything. What I’ll say is this: “Bleachers” features some of the bigger stakes of any story in this collection, more than the guy who likes to be early or the woman who is embarrassed to have a chair. “Bleachers” stuck with me, in only two pages. Mills has that ability and it’s often apparent, yet sometimes sneaks up on me, like it did here.

Bleachers is a dedicated project, a writer conceiving a vision and having the conviction to see it through. Joseph Mills has offered us a detailed snapshot, a collection of characters thrust together for this wholesome, absurd event. There’s a revelation, and I enjoyed discovering it in this book.

82008743_10107383272684360_2530659601989238784_n

January 13, 2020: “Tics” by Wendy Rawlings

Hello, Story366!

Well, classes started up at MSU again today. Last semester, coming off sabbatical, I had an overload, doing four courses (I don’t remember how that even came about). In return, I get to only do two this semester, an online Intro to Fiction and a new class I’m piloting, a book-publishing class (as in, how to run a press, how to publish books). So, I teach one seated class, and that only meets twice a week; it doesn’t even start until 3:30.

Yet, first day back, and here I am, it closing in on 11:30 p.m., and I haven’t posted my entry yet today. First twelve days of the year, no job to go to? The latest I posted was like 3 in the afternoon. First day with a serious commitment? Keeping an eye on the clock to make sure I finish by midnight. I swore I wouldn’t put myself in this situation when I started up again this year, and even though I knew that was a crock, I didn’t think it would be so soon. Oops.

To let myself off the hook, today wasn’t a normal Monday. I got the boys off to school, saw Karen out the door, and then spent a few hours perfecting and posting my syllabi. Since that one class is online, I had to also set up the entire Blackboard, including assignments, readings, etc., not to mention a lecture: I had to actually teach. I also had to go to a parent meeting for the older boy’s archery team, go buy the boys dress clothes for the upcoming funeral, hit the grocery store, attend a Scout meeting, and then come home and see if that suit I wore last whenever is in decent enough shape to wear again, maybe with a light ironing.

Then read a book and do this post.

I don’t feel so bad. Except I’m exhausted. Which is a kind of feeling bad.

Lucky for me I picked out Wendy Rawlings‘ latest book, Time for Bed, released last year by LSU Press as part of their Yellow Shoe Fiction series. I’ve read and enjoyed Rawlings’ work for quite some time, and in fact, published one of these stories, “Portrait of My Mother’s Head on a Plate,” in Mid-American Review back in the day. Rawlings is a good writer and there’s no other way I’d like to round out a busy day than with her new book.

Aside from revisiting the Mid-Am story, I read the opener, “Coffins for Kids!” about a mom dealing with her daughter’s death, the result of a rather absurd school shooting. Next was “Portrait of My Mother’s Head on the Plate,” and then “Tics,” which I’m writing about today. I also enjoyed the heck out of the next piece, “BodSwap™ With Moses,” about a 350-pound woman who swaps bodies, from the neck down, with a failed Kenyan marathon runner. Rawlings shows a lot of range—some of these stories employ realism, while some employ out-there premises like body-swapping—but at the heart, it was easy to see the link between these pieces, Rawlings’ style, her sensibilities, her dark humor. I went with “Tics” because it’s disturbing (in a different way than picturing an African man’s head on a corpulent white woman’s body) and I’m just in the mood for that type of disturbing tonight.

“Tics” is about a nameles woman, who could be anywhere from her late twenties to her early forties, who finds herself at the start of the story at a very Modern Familyesque Christmas gathering. Her mom is there with her new lesbian wife. Her two sisters are there, too one revealing she’s a Scientologist, the other declaring herslef a Mormon. Dad’s there, too, with his new fiancee and her three sons, all of whom have names that start with G. It’s working surprisingly well, so this isn’t where the conflict in the story arises.

Eventually, our hero decides to make a booze run—her big news is she’s just started Weight Watchers and isn’t sharing that with anyone—all of these people, in this place, just too much. Her soon-to-be stepmom’s oldest, seventeen-year-old Glen, asks to come along, and away they go, off for some holiday spirits.

Glen is the kind of guy that sings songs in front of strange, middle-aged women in the car, changing the lyrics to fit the situation, including names of people he knows. He says what’s on his mind, suggests they get malt liquor for everyone, and twitches his head a lot. Our narrator is captivated, but awkwardly blurts out, “What’s wrong with you?” even though she’s an adult woman driving around with her future step-brother, just seventeen. Glen reveals that he has Tourette’s, that everyone notices it except him—it’s just who he is. He then makes unsubtle jokes about e.e. cummings—as in, he likes to cum—and when our hero seems game, puts his hand on her thigh and tells her he’d fuck her if he had a condom. This all while sucking down Colt .45, their families waiting back at the narrator’s childhood home.

After the holiday, Glen finds an excuse to meet up with our hero at her aparment in Queens (Christmas was in Long Island), where they start up a passionate affair. They do it in every way the narrator has conceived, in ways she hadn’t, in every place in her apartment, on every surface. They have so much sex, she acquires a UTI. Because Glen is seventeen and she figures he’d be into seeing gross stuff, she shows him her rust-colored pee; her instinct was right, Glen thinking it’s cool. He even runs out to get the antibiotic for her, nurses her back to health, and then they start up again, fucking left and right, up and down. For our narrator, this is the most sexual she’s ever been, a real awakening. She’s never been confident enough to try half the things she’s doing with Glen, never having a partner interested enough to take that lead.

Remember, she and Glen are about to become step-brother and sister. And she’s much older than Glen. And Glen’s underage. Our protagonist has gotten herself into quite a jam. At the same time, she’s having such an adventure, feeling so alive, she can’t help herself. One moment she’s swearing not to think about Glen in a sexual way ever again. The next moment she’s texting him about her masturbation session, Glen’s body running through her brain as she got herself off. Like I said, this one’s disturbing.

The story’s really not about right or wrong, though. It’s about a woman who’s found herself, but how she pretty much has to lose herself again. What she’s found isn’t right, for a lot of reasons, and it’s all going to blow up. That’s what makes great fiction. I mean, what did we want from this story, Glen to be age-appropriate? Not a new family member?

I really love how Rawlings leaves this woman in the air at the end of this story, how there is no resolution, is no denouement, no viable solution. She does the same thing to her protagonists in other stories, like the woman from “Coffins for Kids!”—it’s not like she somehow gets over the tragedy of her murdered child. Same goes for the woman in “BodSwap™ With Moses,” who, as it turns out, really likes Moses’ sleek body (as does her wife), and doesn’t want to swap back when it’s time. I love that kind of ending, so far from anything being resolved, the conflict, the situation, the melee, all of it more than enough.

I’ve always been a fan of Wendy Rawlings and really just devoured these stories in Time for Bed. Great new collection from a great writer (and teacher, Rawlings a prof at Alabama’s fine MFA program). I know I’ll remember this one, will come back to it often.

82007461_10107381199888260_7173324016931831808_n