July 6, 2020: “Lot” by Bryan Washington

Monday again, Story366!

Today we took a step toward something else, toward trust, toward a risk: We sent our youngest son off to summer school. Even a week ago, I didn’t realize that this is what summer school was—live, in person—as the first half was all online. As soon as I found it out, I thought there was a mistake. But no, that’s what they’d planned, as they decided to give it a go. I wasn’t so sure I—we—were ready for that.

The Karen, who knows things, confirmed that this is what it’s always been. We looked through the packet the district mailed to us and found a surprisingly large amount of protections for the kiddos in place. Only twelve students are in each class, coupled with social distancing, masks, and limited mobility; the kids will not be moving from class to class at all, will eat a pre-packaged lunch, and no communal playing or gathering will be allowed. They seem pretty serious about making it happen, so we’ve decided to give it a go. Admittedly, we’re doing this because of the precautions they’re taking, and also because of the relatively low count of COVID-19 in the area.

There’s no way to know if this is the right decision until much later in time, of course. Everyone we know is predicting a comeback for the virus, for classes to perhaps start in the fall here, but then for us to face another shutdown. A friend of mine at UMKC told me they have planned for online classes this fall for months: They’re not even going to try it. Things could change for us here—for my kids’ schools and for MSU—at any moment, but for now, we decided to give it a try. Fingers crossed.

Today I read from Bryan Washington‘s 2019 collection, Lot, out from Riverhead BooksLot was one of the more celebrated collections of 2019, and as soon as it appeared in paperback, I snatched up a copy. I’d not read anything by Washington before I started today, so for a fresh week, here’s a fresh take.

I’ll start by saying that I think all the good press this book has gotten is well deserved. Four stories in, I can tell this is going to end up being one of my favorite books of the year. Lots of days left in the year, and I don’t actually hand out a trophy, but I have a good feeling this one would make a top ten list, especially if I ended today.

The book, unbenownst to me before today, is a collection of interrelated stories. Most of the stories—all of the ones I read—focus on Nicolás, the youngest of three children. There’s also the oldest, sister Jan, and the middle child, brother Javi. They live with their parents in the Houston neighborhood of Alief. It’s the type of place where people of every ethnicity live, where someone could grow up and never speak a work of English. Their mom is black and their dad is Latino. Their parents own a restaurant on a choice lot—the Lot—and their mom does most of the work; their father is a philanderer, and eventually, a heroin addict, and eventually, he leaves them. On top of the economics and biracial issues at play here, Nicolás is also coming to terms with his sexuality, with coming out as gay to his family. So, a lot going on, a lot that makes Lot so rich and interesting.

The first story, “Lockwood,” is a shortie and kind of establishes what the neighborhood’s like, what kind of thing goes down there. Nicolás’ family helps out an extremely poor family who lives in their building, poor as in the kids don’t have food and their apartment has no furniture. Nicolás hangs out with the boy from the family who’s his age, Roberto, with whom he experiments sexually. Just as everyone is starting to adapt to this family, and the family is beginning to accept everyone’s help, they disappear, in the dark of night, never to be seen again. It’s a emblematic of how fleeting the faces are in Alief, how someone can have such an impact but be around so briefly.

The next story, “Alief,” further outlines the neighborhood. This time, Washington uses a communal narrator, the kids in the apartment building, to tell the story. The we here, being so many kids, has eyes everywhere, so they see everything, and tell everything, too. Too bad for Aja and her white lover, James, who try to sneak around, only to have the kids tell Aja’s husband, Paul, only to have Paul full-out murder James up in James’ apartment. So, yeah, that happens in the second story, is a weight the kids carry around—not that it seems to bother them all that much.

“610 North, 610 West” reminds me of Díaz’s “Fiesta, 1980,” which can’t be an accident. Here, Nicolás goes with his dad to his dad’s lover’s apartment and has to wait there—for quite a while—while dad and this woman do the deed, and quite loudly, in the next room. It’s more future background info for who Nicolás will become, a memory, along with everything that comes before and after, that will help form him, dictate the relationship he has with his father, his mother, with women, and with sex.

I’ll focus on the title story, “Lot,” because it’s a great story and I like doing the title story. “Lot” is further into the book, two-thirds, and sees Nicolás at 19. Since I last checked in, Dad took up drugs, then left. Jan married a white guy and has a baby. Javi joined the Army and is gone. And in some ways, worst of all, Alief is slowly becoming gentrified, white yuppies moving in, property selling, the old feel of the neighborhood slipping away.

This all puts Nicolás at a crossroads. With Jan and Javi doing their thing, he’s the only one who can help their aging mom in the restaurant, do all that cooking, all the cleaning, all amidst dwindling crowds. At the same time, his mom, and especially Jan, are pressuring him to have a different plan, to go to school, to find a job, maybe figure out where he’s going to live, long-term. He even tries community college for a few weeks, then drops out, only to find out nobody cares, nobody asks why he’s stopped going. On one hand, he seems chained to the kitchen of the family restaurant for life. On the other hand, that might not be so bad, because he has nothing else in terms of a plan. He honestly doesn’t want to let his mother down, though, a genuine notion that makes his wavering honorable, at the very least.

I don’t want to go all that much further into this, but Washington goes a little existential here, I’ll say, expediting Nicolás’ decision faster than anyone thought it would move. I haven’t read everything up to this point, and nothing after, but “Lot” seems like a key turning point in the book, in Nicolás’ life—does he stay in Alief forever, running the family shop, or does he explore outward, see what’s to see, define himself instead of inheriting his identity?

This is one of those collections that I’ll certainly read all the way through, as Lot is the kind of book you don’t leave hanging as it’s hanging right now. Bryan Washington has forced me to care about Nicolás (btw, I don’t remember him being named in the stories I read—I found “Nicolás” on Wikipedia), to want to see what’s got him this far, where he’s going next. Part of me thinks that this is at least semi-autobiographical, that Nicolás will start writing in a journal, take a creative writing class at the community college, start scribing the tales of his neighborhood. But I won’t assume that. I will assume that these stories will remain as easy and important and funny and touching as they have been so far, that this will indeed end up on my top list when all is said and done.

106811711_10108115440788610_5579249653810711417_n

 

July 5, 2020: “First-Person Shooter” by Leland Cheuk

Hello there, Story366!

I hope everyone’s Fourth was fantastic. Things went down pretty much how I predicted, pre-celebration, yesterday, as me and the fam went to see a local fireworks display, out in the town where the Karen is a newspaper editor, at a local church. They have a nice display, and unlike the municipal fireworks, there’s very little trouble with in or out, as not all that many people attend. The show is probably a little shorter, and just a tad bit less grand, but hey, it was still pretty darned good. Besides, two-thirds of the way through, our boys were asking how much longer it was going to last. So, longer would definitely not have been better.

We coupled the firworks with a bucket of KFC, chowing down in the car before things got started. The church had a decent Christian country band going before the show, which was fine, I guess, an even exchange for free fireworks and no long car lines out of the fairground parking lot. The mayor of this town, whom Karen knows from city council stuff, actually drove by us in an ATV, offering hot dogs and candy. He was also the emcee of the event. He’s, kind, loves Jesus, and apparently has hot dogs and candy to spare.

Sadly, most of the people in attendance were bunched together like beans in a can. It almost looked as if they were trying to get as close to each other as they could, not a mask in sight. I guess that’s what you get in smalltown Missouri, though, lots of smiles, lots of amenities, but a whole lot of right-wing politics. We weren’t going anywhere near these folks—our car was a hundred feet from anybody—and it’s not like I was going to hear a band do a decent cover of an Oak Ridge Boys song and suddenly be saved. Conservative influence on our family? Zilch.

But that was our Fourth, in 2020, in Missouri, USA: fireworks, a bucket of chicken, lots of Jesus, all from the comfort of the family Hyudai Sonata.

Today, for the story-reading/reviewing part of the blog, I pick back up with new authors after a successful week of second-timers. To recap, I’ve just focused on seven authors I’d covered on Story366 before—Dave Housley, Melissa Pritchard, Anthony Varallo, Suzanne Burns, Andy Mozina, Sherrie Flick, and Jeffrey Condron—focusing on a different collection this time around. I have enough books to do at least two more Two-Timers weeks, though, so watch for those to come intermittently for the rest of the year. In the meantime, I’ve restocked the shelves and will focus on new (to me) authors and collections.

Today I read from Leland Cheuk‘s 2016 collection, Letters From Dinosaurs, out from Thought Catalog BooksI learned about Cheuk through the press he started and runs, 7.13 Books, whose collections I’ve covered on here a lot this year. Cheuk is also a novelist and a story writer, and I was happy to track down a copy of this book, which I liked reading from a lot today. So, here we go, some Leland Cheuk.

The first and semi-title story of the collection, “A Letter From Your Dinosaur,” is epistolary, a letter from an older man—at least 70—to his young son, from whom he’s been estranged for two decades. It’s implied that this son—now the CEO of a successful Internet startup—has tried to get in touch with him over the years, inviting him to his wedding, even driving from San Francisco up to Portland for a meet-up, which Dad forgot to attend. The father, writing now, is textbook unreliability, vacilating from regret, to blame, to indifference, the kind of letter a man like him writes under very particular circumstances.

The next piece, “Blacklights,” also features an unreliable narrator, though this one’s told through a third-person view. Earl, the protagonist, has been in business with Doug for years, but doesn’t like Doug’s new girlfriend, Laura. Earl is the short, chubby half of the group and has been married to Grace for over a decade, while Doug is the suave and handsome dealmaker, who jumps from beauty to beauty with easy regularity. Doug and Laura visit Earl and Grace’s for a dinner party, and Earl has a hard time hiding his disdain, which is explained by a lot of factors, including the fact Laura is white (none of the other characters are). Like the dinosaur dad in the first story, Earl is too all over the place with his logic, and especially his actions, to be taken 100 percent at face value.

The story I’m highlighting today, “First-Person Shooter,” is my favorite of the three I’ve read so far. This one’s about Marcus, who starts the story by playing some militaristic first-person shooter game. He seems like a normal kid, playing these violent games, but because this is a short story, a story reader will know this is probably going somewhere, leading to something bigger.

That somewhere and something is what happened several years beforehand, Marcus walking to campus with his lifelong best friend, Eugene, Eugene telling Marcus to duck behind a tree and stay there, then Eugene running into a building and killing almost forty people, then himself. Marcus, who played games with Eugene, went to school with Eugene, and even videotaped Eugene once, with his automatic rifle, saying he was going to kill people, has been cleared as an accomplice, but only after a battle. Most people think Marcus was in on it, while Marcus is still traumatized by losing his friend, in such a fucked-up manner. Marcus has been in his bedroom since, for six years, wandering downstairs to get food and not much else.

By the way, this is me laying it all out there in summary, but Cheuk’s rate of reveal provides the right amount of intrigue and tension, the story paced out perfectly. We always suspect something like this, but it’s not until three-quarters of the way through the story that we know the exacts.

The story is set on the day, six years later, that Marcus’ family is fed up. They’ve been patient, more or less, letting Marcus live in their house, not have a job, not drive, and not have any relationships (but still play first-person shooter games, to note). His brother, Steve, calls him early in the story and tells him that the family is going to dinner, to Olive Garden, and Marcus needs to go. Marcus is, of course, not buying it, as if Steve is asking him to fly to the sun.

Steve is insistent, though. It’s through Steve we find out that this whole incident has wrought. It’s caused their parents to split, for their mom to need medical help—hypertension and stress—and for the family to go to shit in general. Steve is giving Marcus an ultimatum: He needs to get in the car and go to Olive Garden, get out of the house, into public, and spend time with his family.

Or else what? would be the question you would ask if you were Marcus, and it’s pretty much what Marcus asks. He doesn’t really care if Steve is mad at him, or that his dad’s left, or that he’s crushing his mother. And maybe he shouldn’t care. Or he can’t—the trauma he went through is no joke, nothing all that easy to get over.

It’s not until Marcus’ mom plays a card, calls Marcus’ bluff, do we see things boil to a climax. I won’t reveal that here, but like any card you play, it’s a risk. And a good fictional move by Cheuk, making for an intense, sympathetic story.

Letters From Dinosaurs by Leland Cheuk is a book about people who have flaws their creator isn’t in any hurry to hide. They’re people who, over the course of these stories, try to be better, but maybe can’t, perhaps because they’re too far good. Or maybe not—depends on the story, depends on the character. All of this, to note, is in the shadow of the bigotry each one of the character experiences to some degree, all of them Chinese-Americans, like Cheuk, who deal with sytemic racism at just about every level. It’s a unique combination for a collection for me, leading to some pretty fantastic stories. I really enjoyed this book today. It’s solid.

107039245_10108113125742980_4723465022259195740_n

 

 

July 4, 2020: “1983” by Jeffrey Condran

Happy Fourth of July, Story366!

Today we’re celebrating in the way we celebrate pretty much every Saturday, as it’s a day off that me and the Karen and the boys can be together. We might go for a walk. We might grab a bite to eat. We might try to replace our refrigerator (see previous posts). We will try to keep out of cough’s range of every other human on the planet.

We might try to catch a fireworks display, though, one that we can watch from our car, or from camping chairs that we set up next to said car. We’ll bring a cooler filled with ice and drinks. We’ll bring bug spray. We’ll Oo! and Ah! until it’s time to get into traffic, to go back home.

To note, this isn’t all that different from what we normally do on the Fourth. Actually, since Karen’s been working at the paper, she’s been covering the County Fair, which usually coincides with this weekend; sadly, it’s canceled this year for you know why. The past two summers, I’ve attended and had a nice time, something different, plus, it’s good to show our boys where their food comes from. I’ve also gotten more intimate with those livestock competitions than I ever thought I would. Nothing like sitting in stinky bleachers on a one-hundred-degree day and watching a grown man fondle the balls of some barnyard supermodel, then, without washing his hands, grab a blue ribbon and pin it on some nine-year-old FFA prodigy. And we blame some mythological bat-eater in China for the spread of disease.

For today’s holiday post, I don’t have a Fourth-themed story, but I am focusing on a story, “1983,” which is a date, just like the Fourth of July. Eh? In any case, today’s Two-Timer  author is Jeffrey Condron, whom I covered the first time in June of 2018 when I highlighted “Building Cities in the Desert” from A Fingerprint Repeated. Today I read from his new book, Claire, Wading Into the Danube By Night, out this year from Southeast Missouri State University Press. Jeffrey and I know each other because we more or less do the same thing: writing, professoring, and looking after a small press—Jeffrey’s is the impressive Braddock Avenue Books—so I feel like he and I are in “this” together. And he’s a really good story writer. So here we go.

The first story, “In Costume,” is about Ava, who attends a Regency-themed fundraiser at her friend Vivian’s house. In attendance is the handsome and dashing American movie star, Edward Emanuel. Ava, wearing a Regency gown (i.e., “in costume”) straight out of Jane Austen, hits it of with Edward, so much so, she believes, she crashes a movie set of his the next day, during filming, just to say hi (i.e., throw herself at him). Her ploy works to some degree, as she and Edward have a date together, and Edward even takes her to his hotel. From there, things are not quite what Ava hopes.

The final and title story is “Claire, Wading Into the Danube By Night.” This one’s about a guy who has loved and lost Claire. Condron shifts around in time here, starting with the revelation that Claire has disappeared, that his hero is looking for her. We then have scenes right before Claire left, scenes of their courtship and eventual engagement, and also the scene where he and Claire met, mostly in that order. They’re interspersed with frontstory scenes when Claire is already gone and he’s searching Europe for any sign of her. It’s romantic story, and a sad one, and seems worldy and ancient, all these European landmarks, right down to the Danube, where our man believes Claire disappeared, walking right in and escaping him and every other reality.

Those two stories share some things in common, such as love that’s within the grasp and then gone, as well as old-world, European settings. Completely different, then, is “1983,” today’s super-focus, which doesn’t have any of that. This one’s about Nick, who’s 12 and spends a lot of time with his older brother, Martin. Martin is more or less a bully, a tough kid who starts fights just to prove he can fight. The boys spend a lot of time in Paul’s gun store, Paul being their dad’s good friend; their dad, by the way, has left, maybe never to return, while Mom is barely mentioned. These kids are pretty much on their own, save Paul, who is more than happy to have a couple of tweens hanging around his store.

Martin wants to toughen Nick up, as he thinks he’s a pussy, and calls him that, openly, even in front of Paul, even in front of their mom. One day they’re in front of their house and they see a group of kids playing across the street. Martin points at one of them and wants Nick to beat him up, just to prove he can beat someone up. Of course, Nick doesn’t want to, but Martin calls the kid over. His name is Jeffrey Matsuyama and is Nick’s age, but is wearing a Batman cape and telling Martin—who unbeknownst to him has just ordered his demise—that he has a superpower, that he can tell whether or not people believe in superheroes. Martin wants the kid beat up even more at this point, but Nick still refuses and Martin is pissed and disgusted.

Something happens instead: Nick and Jeffrey become friends. Nick starts to hang out at his apartment across the street from his house, where he finds more video games and video game systems than he’s ever seen. The boys bond and Nick even stays overnight one night. It’s fun, but Nick wakes up in the middle of the night to find Jeffrey screaming, which is weird. But this kid has more in common with him than Martin, and much more in common with him than Paul. They are friends.

Eventually, Jeffrey’s immaturity gets the best of him, as he almost kills himself one day, playing superhero. Nick heads over to his place to find him hanging from his second-floor balcony—Jeffrey tried to do a Daredevil backflip and miraculously was able to grab onto the railings before falling over. Nick has Jefrey fall, swearing he’ll catch him, but gets a bloody mouth from Jeffrey’s sneaker in the process. Still, Nick is Jeffrey’s hero, savior, and friend for life.

I don’t want to go any further into the plot of “1983,” though I’ll mention there’s a twist or two on the path to resolution, Martin simply not allowing his brother to be happy with a kid like Jeffrey as his friend. Condron nostalgically recalls a simpler, and a more complex, time, where bullies got to be bullies and kids who liked Batman were weird and shunned. Except for the games the boys play, and that years-past context, there’s really no other indication that this takes place in 1983. I guess that context is pretty important, though, to understand Martin, the type of thug we still see today, but at least can call out. This is a good story, a solid treatise on friendship, the kind of story that’s timeless.

More than happy to cover Jeffrey Condron a second time. His new book, Claire, Wading Into the Danube By Night, is a welcome new collection to the realm. I see characters here who are so dependent on another, Condron defining his protagonists by these people in their lives. It’s a great way to characterize someone, and it makes his stories really ring true, seem as real as anything I’ve read. This is a good book.

107529076_10108108091935770_4912963997524687118_n

July 3, 2020: “How I Left Ned” by Sherrie Flick

Happy day off of work, Story366!

Yesterday I spoke of the death of our refrigerator and the challenge to have a new fridge delivered to your house and installed, especially during coronavirus the start of a holiday weekend. It’s possible, but only if you wait three to seven business days. Do eggs and cheese and ranch dressing keep in a balmy house for three to seven business days? I guess we’ll find out in two to six days.

We got proactive today and went to some local stores, which wasn’t fruitful, as those are way more expensive, they don’t offer free delivery and installation, and they can’t guarantee anything any sooner than the big box stores. We also went to Menard’s, as we need a new light fixture for the dining room and a new toilet for the toilet room. Both the Karen and I realized that neither of us had ever been in a Menard’s before. It’s kind of neat, like the other big box hardware/houseware stores, only with some groceries and a lot of impulse items. They’re not the best for appliances—we still haven’t bought a fridge—but if I ever need to gauge the flush efficiency of a toilet and pick up light bulbs, gardening gloves, and a Twix bar on the same day, I’ll be back.

Today I read from Sherrie Flick‘s 2018 collection, Thank Your Lucky Stars, out from Autumn House Press. In April of 2016, I covered Flick’s “Breakfast,” from Whiskey, Etc. I’ve known Sherrie for a long time—we were at Chautauqua together one summer—and have always admired her work. We work together oSmokeLong Quarterly, too. I am proud to call her friend and to cover her again today—which also happens to be her birthday. Happy birthday, Sherrie. Thanks for your stories.

Flick has a reputation as a writer of flash fiction, a reputation she’s earned, as she’s one of the hallmark writers of that form. It should be noted that Flick writes more traditionally lengthed stories as well, which are also pretty damn good. The stories are all mixed together in Thank Your Lucky Stars.

One longer story I really like is “Singing Cowboy, Dayton, Ohio,” which is about Kenny. Kenny is a door-to-door salesman, decked out in a cowboy outfit, dragging a pony named Puff behind him. He sells Western photos to people, their kids climbing on Puff’s back, wearing the outfits, etc.—the photos can probably be ordered in cepia, that kind of thing. Kenny makes the mistake of knocking on one guy’s door one day, a retired cowboy named H.J. from Wyoming. H.J. invites Kenny—or “Bob Buckaroo”—in for a drink, for an apple for Puff, playing like he’s going to buy some photos. Soon, Kenny realizes that he’s in for more than which he asked, genuine H.J. taking offense at the entire scenario. I’ll note that the dialogue in this story is as good as any dialogue I can think of, the characters dancing around each other so much, it’s like they’re having different conversations. At least until they’re not. I think my students will read this story for years to come, on Dialogue day, just to see how it’s done.

I love Flick’s shorts, of course, what she does with that space, the language she employs, the drama she incites, and the characters that leave indelible marks. Some favorites? “Crickets,” “Sweetie Pie,” “And Then,” “The Bridge,” “Digging,” “The Bottle,” “Back Porch,” …. Okay, I’m doing it again, like I did for other short-short books, e.g., Kathy Fish’s, where I try to pinpoint favorites and I just want to name every story. So, my recommendation is the book.

Today I’m going to focus a bit more on the first story, “How I Left Ned,”which ends with the book’s title line, a story I particularly like. This one’s about a woman who runs into two guys with a truckload of corn on the side of the road. She wants to buy some corn from then, enough for dinner, an impulse by at an impulse stop.

However, something’s off. The guys don’t seem to know a whole lot about corn. Or sales. They want to argue about prices, about how many ears our hero can buy. As for our protagonist, for whatever reason, for a roadside impulse buy, she’s going to win this argument. They start to haggle, talk better prices and quantity, and before long, it’s clear no one’s giving any ground.

While these cornsellers aren’t farmers, our hero realizes that they’re crooks. And not just in the way they overprice their corn: This corn is hot. These men stole a truckful of corn and are trying to move it.

Does our hero relent, even with her life in danger? These men, in the middle of nowhere, could easily do her harm. They are as stubborn as she is, as persistent, and after a while, it’s clear that their confrontation is no longer about corn. I don’t want to reveal what happens to end this story, but remember the title of this story, “How I Left Ned,” for a hint. Even if you think you figure it out, you should track this story down. I really love it—what a bar to set at the start of a book. It’s a bar Sherrie Flick reaches over and over throughout Thank Your Lucky Stars.

106357522_10108103611329940_1023041122079605445_n

 

 

 

July 2, 2020: “The Women Were Leaving the Men” by Andy Mozina

Good day to you, Story366!

RIP, our refrigerator. For the third time in just over three weeks, the fridge half of our unit has gone down. There’s some issue with ice forming on the fridge-side fan because it gets too cold, making the fan freeze up and stop working. You can fix it by defrosting the entire unit—or by pointing a blow dryer at the fan for like an hour—we’ve defrosted both previous times, which takes most of a day or an overnight. This twice sent me to my building on campus with all our perishables, to the breakroom fridge, lugging them on and off of campus in laundry baskets. The Karen wanted to cut and run after the last time, but I talked her into giving it another go. She was right, though—she’s even researched this problem—as basically, any fix we do is short-term. So, as much as I enjoy unplugging our fridge, running all our food to my place of business, and living out of  coolers for a day or two, we’ve decided to get a new fridge. This is the right decision.

The only issue is, dealers in town either aren’t delivering now or are saying three to seven business days (not including today, nor tomorrow, which people are counting as the holiday).  So, we can pay for a new fridge right now, give a company hundreds of dollars, but we still can’t have a fridge until the week of July 16. Yay! Home ownership! Adulthood! Life!

Today I read several stories from Andy Mozina‘s 2007 collection The Women Were Leaving the Men, out from Wayne State University Press. In September of 2016, I covered Mozina’s story “Quality Snacks,” from Quality Snacks, also from WSUP, also part of their Made in Michigan Writers Series. I like Mozina’s stories a whole lot, so I was more than happy to double up, to make Mozina the latest writer to become a Story366 Two-Timer.

The lead story, “Cowboy Pile,” is a gem, and delivers what it advertises. Here we get a bunch of cowboys, or at least wannabe cowboys, piling up on top of each other, randomly. Then it’s about the physics of that, how it squashes those bottom cowboys, and how the world around the piles react, media and such. It’s a short piece, and certainly metaphorical for a whole lot of things for which you want to make it metaphorical.

“Privacy, Love, Loneliness” is about this high school kid, Brian, who seems like he has an antisocial disorder, if not a spectrum disorder; he could just be messed up because his dad left him when he was four. Brian has attracted the interest of Gracie, who’s interested in him, follows him around. After some very intentional avoiding of this pursuit—always paired with masturbation sessions centered around her—Brian decides he’d like to be a more normal person and makes himself ask Gracie on a date. What happens next is awkward, but works, Brian figuring out how be with a person, to grow and change with Gracie as incentive.

“The First Cake Was a Failure” is about another kid whose dad left him. This time, instead of reverting within himself, our hero helps his mom bake a giant cake that looks like his dad. The rest of the story is spent eating the dad cake whenever he gets dad anxiety, eating the dad, and, well, you can again extract the various meanings of this act for yourself. Love it.

I’m writing about the title story today, “The Women Were Leaving the Men,” which is an honest-to-God third person plural story, one that I’m going to make sure I get a copy of—whenever I teach POV in my classes and run down that POV/person chart, someone asks if I know of a story in third-plural. I always say, “The Thing They Carry,” but only for like half of it. Now I have a genuine story to pull out and show them, dooming me, I’m sure, to a whole lot more third-plural stories than I’d ever dreamed of.

“The Women Leaving the Men” is a good one, though. This is about two groups of theys, the men who have just been left and the women who have left them. Mozina alternates between the two, the men going through all the stages of grief—as a unit, as that they—and the women rolling their eyes at the husbands’ antics, their patheticness, their crying and begging to be taken back.

What Mozina is nailing here is some sort of middle-class, middle-aged, white-guy angst. They have been left. It’s not about affairs—those would be justifiable, easy separations—but about personal defects, most of these centered around selfishness and childhood regression. The men are needy, the men complain, and the men shift further and further apart. Leaving these men, for these women, is pretty easy, when it’s all laid out. “Dudes, it’s not about you,” I wanted to tell them. Too late.

I like the scenes where the men convene and go through those stages of grief. Sometimes they’re all like “Yeah, I got what I deserved.” Sometimes they face the fact that their wives have already taken up with a new man, that they’re further back in the rearview than they fathomed. Sometimes they talk about their feelings. Sometimes they talk about their junk.

The women act oppositely, confident in their decisions. It’s fun to see women in a position of power here, for them to be depicted with all the cards, to be making—to have made—all the decisions. Good for these women. In fact, this reads like Mozina is purposely turning the tables on those heteronormative gender roles we see so, so often. Makes me think about how I depict women in my stories. And how the fuck I act around my wife.

I really look forwar to the rest of this The Women Were Leaving the Men. Andy Mozina’s fiction speaks to me, as it’s weirdly unconventional, deals universal truths, and presents stories as if they were adventures, or maybe fantastic voyages, the characters colorful and distinct, the situations attractions. This is good fiction—I hope Mozina writes more stories, publishes another book, setting up a third date for us in the future.

106129963_10108100362859900_2974685827443248116_n

July 1, 2020: “First Movement” by Suzanne Burns

Good Thursday, Story366!

This just came in, and since I was looking for a pre-story topic today, I’ll share it. Springfield just passed an ordinance where they’re trying to stop people from leaving their cans out by the curb all the time. That’s great. I live in a college neighborhood and often, the college students renting my neighborhood’s houses do just that: They leave their can out on the curb—or the tree lawn, technically—and keep them there instead of putting them back in the garage or behind the house line. They get knocked over out there and trash piles up in the street. Even the cans, out there permanently, look bad—if you care about such things.

However, the city council meeting yesterday went all crazypants. Not only is there a fine attached to this offense—hey, a warning, then maybe a twenty-five-dollar fine would be reasonable, I bet—but that fine is ONE THOUSAND DOLLARS. A grand, simply because you forgot—or maliciously and intentionally intended—to pull in your trash cans!

Even better, there’s also a year in a jail listed as a possibility. A year in jail!

I read the press release article just now—the Karen keeps up on this shit, the journalist that she is—and to top off this ridiculous fine and threat of imprisonment, there’s this tidbit from the City Manager (Gage):

Gage says, “If someone doesn’t want to bring their cans back where it should , they probably have some other violations we need to get to.”

What?!?! Are trash cans the new tail lights? You got your trash cans out too long so that gives the police the right to pull you out of your house and search your out building? Your basement? Go through your kids’ drawers? The guy, right before that, admitted that it would take a pretty extreme violation for any of this to be enforced—Whew!—but then follows it up with the “probably have some other violations we need to get to” insanity. Like, what the fuck does that mean?

Okay, I realize I’m a middle-class white guy barking about some silly law that will probably never affect me. This isn’t an actual tail-light situation, where some person of color is pulled over for having a bad bulb, and before you know it, they’re being yanked out of their car, handcuffed, and worse—you know what I mean, how this starts and where it goes. It’s not my intention to make such an aloof comparison to what’s going on right now in the world. Still, this is pretty nuts and worth sharing, even if it makes you think People in Springfield worry about the pettiest shit ….

Today I continue on with a Two-Timers Week. If you’ve not read this blog the last few days, what that means is I’m covering an author for the second time. Meaning, more specifically, that I’m doing a different book than I did the first time, as sometimes, authors write more than one book of stories. I could probably cover most of a month with Alice Munro and T.C. Boyle books alone. And I just might.

Today’s Two-Timer is Suzanne Burns. Back in January of 2016, I wrote on Burns’ collection, Misfits and Other Heroes, focusing in on “The Resurrection of Debbie.” I’ve always been a fan of Burns’ stories, as she and I were both on Dzanc, so I’ve known her work for a long time. Burns’ second Dzanc collection, The Veneration of Monsters, out in 2017, is another gem, a gem I ogled for a while today.

“First Movement” is the lead story and is my favorite, so I’m focusing on it. “First Movement” is about Cherise, or Cherry, who has a revelation early in the story that she needs to be “unique.” She wants to meet a man who called her mouth a symphony—that’s actually what she says in the first line of the story—a man who appreciates her for who she is, what she has to offer. This epiphany sends her on a journey of adventures—and misadventures—trying to form this new identity, this new persona (hence, Cherry instead of Cherise).

Some of the stops along the way include the candy store, where Cherry announces to the clerk that she wants something new and exciting. The clerks suggests a mint that’s bathed in the flavor of violets. Cherry snatches up all they have in the store. When she gets outside and tries one, she spits it out, disgusted that she’s basically just eaten a perfume-flavored mint.

To give you an even better characterization of Cherry, after she spits out the candy, she picks it up—she doesn’t litter any more, because littering was the old Cherry, was Cherise—and sticks it between her toes, no trash can in sight, right inside her ballet slippers, which is what she wears out on her journey So, Cherry’s a little whimsical … and maybe a bit unreliable in that way, too.

Cherry’s quest takes her other places, like to a deli, where she wants her order wrapped in a pink box with a ribbon around it, which, you might guess, the deli doesn’t keep on hand. This won’t do for Cherry, so she has another interesting conversation with the deli worker. She’s on a particular mission and will not be thwarted. She reminds me a little of Ignatius J Reilly, or maybe a lot of him, how she moves through her day with a specific mindset, a specific way of looking at the world, of what she expects from it. I love Ignatius and I have to admit, I love Cherry, too, even if she’s a bit picaresque at times. That’s more or less what makes this story work so well.

Remember, Cherry is out looking for that guy, and during her journey, she imagines what he’ll be like, placing the same set of ridiculous parameters on what she wants from him. Eventually, Cherry’s day comes to an end and she returns home, but I won’t reveal what happens, as you should just find out for yourself. All in all, this is a memorable character and story, a worthy launching point for Burns’ second effort.

“Reducing,” from the middle of the book, starts to pull together a theme. This one’s about Veronica, aka Ronnie, who at 104 pounds, is looking to lose a couple more so she can be “svelte,” the word her mother uses to describe the ideal woman. Veronica has been pretty fucked up by her mom’s weight expectations, it seems. The way Burns shows that here is when Veronica goes on dates with her would-be beau, Roger, a fat guy who’s nice. He likes to take Ronnie—he’s the one who calls her Ronnie—out for pie after their weekly movie, where he also orders buttered popcorn , which she promptly dumps on the floor. This story becomes more and more surreal as the date develops, and even Roger wants to bail, despite good intentions and high hopes.

That theme, after two stories? Women extremely—and absurdly—altering themselves to what they think men want them to be.

That theme holds up in “The Borrower.” This one’s about Ingrid, a woman trying to get pregnant in her late thirties—with little luck—who’s watching a beautiful, younger, more interesting woman moving into the house across the street. Ingrid’s worries manifest themselves via Sheba, the neighbor, or at least a conjuring of Ingrid’s own fears, who becomes a fixture in Ingrid’s life. Sheba’s the woman she might be trying to be, moved all up in her business, literally and perhaps figuratively, depending on how you read Burns’ work, her notions of what’s real.

I’ve always been a fan of what Suzanne Burns does, so I was thrilled to sit down with The Veneration of Monsters today, to read her again. I will continue to do so, then hope for another collection, to see her stories in journals, glad that a writer like her is out there, making the world better with the tragically oddball women who populate her tales. Burns has something important to say, about women, about body image, and what roles they’re often relegated to in our society. She just has more fun doing so than any writer I can think of.

106296476_10108095680174040_5741978369732669682_n

June 30, 2020: “This Day in History” by Anthony Varallo

Hello, Story366!

Unless my math is wrong—and it probably is—today marks the halfway point of 2020. Six months in the bank in what’s been, hand’s down, the strangest and most eventful year of my life. Along with the ongoing pandemic and the spotlight on racial injustice, we’re of course in an election year, easily the most devisive I’ve witnessed—already. My family has also endured the passing of my mother-in-law, Elsie, which we continue to deal with amidst the rest of this absurdity. We haven’t seen any of our family or friends, either, though it seems like we’re edging back in that direction, with precautions, as the world demands us to do so.

In many ways, Story366 has been a blessing during all this. Of course, the main benefits are all the books I got to read, all the publicity I shine on these deserving authors, and what I learn from the experience. My story collection collection ain’t looking too shabby, either. But the reading and the writing have also focused my energies into something constructive every day, giving me a touchstone to calibrate my life. I’m not saying that I wouldn’t have survived all of this without this blog, as that’s silly, but when I’ve been down, have felt anxious, or have simply needed to focus my mind on something, books have always been there, followed by writing about books, allowing me to take my mind off my troubles, if even for an hour or so.

Thanks to the 183 writers (184, because I covered one dual-authored book), the handful of translators, and all the presses who made all these books come to life. Here’s to the back half of 2020. May it be better than the first half, and there is not a single way in which I don’t mean that.

For today’s entry, I read from another collection by Anthony VaralloThis Day in History, out from the University of Iowa Press in 2005, a winner of their John Simmons Short Fiction Award. Back in August of 2016, I covered Varallo’s “In the Age of Automobiles” from Out Loud, which is actually his second collection, after This Day in History. I’ve known Tony for a long time, mostly by seeing him at AWP, over the course of twenty-something years. We are roughly the same age, were giving it a go as a writer at about the same time, and in general, we do the same thing: We both write, serve as professors, and run lit mags (he edits Crazyhorse, one of the finest mags out there). So glad to catch up with this debut collection, finally, to spend some time with his work again today.

The opening story is “The Eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg,” and is about a kid, or at least an adult looking back on being a kid, and set during a time he hung around with Ben, a boy his age (around 14), and a girl named Carolyn, three years older. Our narrator is in love with the seemingly sophisticated Carolyn, distinctly noting the occasion when he does stuff like talk to her the first time, see inside her house the first time, and hang out in her bedroom for the first time. She and Ben kind of fool around—at least according to Ben—and basically, the trio is a mirror to Jay, Nick, and Daisy from The Great Gatsby, which all of them are reading in school (our narrator is Jay, on the outside, looking in).

“The Miles Between Harry Truman and Harriet Tubman” is a surreal story, again about a kid, this time one that imagines several scenarios where he has different parents, in different situations, all involving him being dropped off at—or forgotten—at two distinct Missouri I-70 rest stops, the Harry Truman and the Harriet Tubman. Each scenario is told  like a dream, something just a bit off, a combination between nightmare and wishful thinking. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what happened with this kid, but “What are abandonment issues?” would be my guess in Jeopardy!

The title story, “This Day in History,” is the last piece in the book and continues on with some already familiar-themes. Kids being separated from their parents, and/or other kids. Adults looking back on formative incidents, remembering minute, specific details very clearly, perhaps warping what’s happened into a more tellable narrative. An overall lack of trust and endearment implied by that adult looking back, their age of innocence woven into a tale of loss and a sort of reverse self-fulfilling prophecy.

This last one’s about June, a young girl who gets dropped off at her grandmother’s for the weekend. June’s mom and her Grandmom don’t get along very well, and every since June’s grandfather died, this is how she sees Grandmom: random drop-offs for days at a time, not a word exchanged between the two older women.

At the outset of this particular visit, it’s announced that June and Grandmom have just done a little shoplifting—a pair of red swim goggles—and had some tuna melts at the mall. That’s kind of a framing device/attention-getter, as Varallo soon goes backward to the start of the weekend, June’s mom dropping her off, as well as some of the backstory. We get how cold it is between mother and daughter, and how laid back Grandmom really is, not giving a crap what June does while she’s there—Grandmom’s pretty practical, by no means a micro-manager.

June takes advantage of this by running to the house behind Grandmom’s house, where she’s befriended a boy named Ronnie, who has a pool. This leads us, eventually, to the need for goggles, to Grandmom’s repulsion at the cost of said goggles, and Grandmom attaching a brand-new pair to June’s head and having her walk straight out of the KB as if she owned them. There’s a lot of nostalgia in this book, encapsulated perfectly by the pure mention of KB Toys (nee Kay-Bee Toy & Hobby), which I probably would not have ever thought of again if Varallo didn’t remind me of it here.

The story’s plot is pretty simple—I’ve just laid it all out, for the most part—but the character dynamics, which I’ve oversimplified, is where the story really goes, where it really hits home. It’s oversimple to say that June’s mom and grandma don’t talk any more, because of course, there’s a story behind it—the time when the did get along, then the schism. Grandmom’s indifferenc to what June does, how she acts, is way more complex than how I put it, that she’s “laid back.” Sometimes people are laid back because they’re laid back. Sometimes they’re laid back to protect themselves from becoming too invested in anything that might turn around and hurt them.

I’ve quickly found out how nice it is to read books by authors I already admire. How silly to have put these people on the sidelines for all this time. Anthony Varallo is another such writer, and I enjoyed reading from This Day in History quite a bit today. Each story I read sent its protagonist down a nostalgic journey, back to a formative time in their lives—obviously, or they wouldn’t be telling these stories—Varallo throwing in some welcome Gen-X pop culture along the way.

106581526_10108092672735970_1041632996621300547_n

June 29, 2020: “The Odditorium” by Melissa Pritchard

Monday again, Story366!

Today I continue with my week of posting on an author for a second time, meaning I already covered them once, but have a different/new book by them and am doing that book now instead. That doesn’t really roll off the tongue, not like Sweeps Week or Taco Tuesday. Two-Timers Week? Sure. Let’s call this Two-Timers Week.

Dave Housley yesterday started us off and Melissa Pritchard is second today with The Odditorium, out in 2012 from Bellevue Literary Press. I originally covered Pritchard in June of 2016, reading from her Disappearing Ingenue: The Misadventures of Eleanor Stoddard (and a story about the Brach heiress murder, if I’m not mistaken). I remember writing that entry in a Drury Inn in Collinsville, Illinois, on the way to a trip to Chicago, my family down at the pool as I pecked away at the desk. I loved that book and love The Odditorium as much, maybe even more.

The Odditorium, as the title might indicate, is filled with stories about the unconventional, misfits who have a place in this world, even if that place is not having a place. The lead story, “Pelagia, Old Fool,” is a romp about this mid-nineteenth-century Russian woman who goes from unwilling bride to outcast to nunnery convict to saint over the course of various circumstantial and incredible adventures. It’s a riot, really, one that includes some tragedy, too. Bonus points to Pritchard for following Pelagia throughout her whole life, and beyond, through Russian history, all the way to Gorbachev. There’s even an epilogue, of sorts, at the end, called “Three Morals,” three random anecdotes/vignettes that I liked, too.

I next read “Ecorché: Flayed Man,” which is switching-POV story, told from three different perpsectives, thethree links on the chain of what happens to a body, in Florence, Italy, in 1798. First there’s the Collector, who finds the bodies, then the Director, who does the dissection and research on the body, and finally, the Anatomist, who prepared the body for display and final rest. The story starts by following this chain as it deals with the corpse of a beautiful young woman, incidents that lead us to see our three protagonists display some rather lewd and disgusting behavior. The story moves beyond the girl, eventually, focusing on these three sad little men more as individuals. Again, after, Pritchard adds a three-part epilogue made of vignettes. Makes me think she likes doing that, adding trios of little stories onto the main story.

I’m focusing on the title story today, “The Odditorium,” which is basically a first-person, primary-resource account of Robert Ripley, of Ripley’s Believe It … or Not! fame. Part of it seems like literary biography, which I liked. I used to read those Ripley books when I was a kid and liked the TV show with creepy, pre-Oscar Jack Palance as the host. So, I liked the facts of Ripley’s life, like how he was funded by William Randolph Hearth. That he was a womanizer, but only married once, for less than nine months. Or that he traveled around the world, himself, decked out in a pith helmet and safari gear, looking for his treasures. Best of all? His swimsuit also included a pith helmet. Now I kind of want to read a full-length biography about this guy.

The story also focuses on a character that’s often referred to as The Appendage, one Norbert Pearlroth, who served as Ripley’s researcher. As dedicated and anal as Ripley was about finding artifacts, Pearlroth proved just as thorough, spending thousands upon thousands of hours in the New York Public Library, making sure every stunning fact was accurate, every unreal claim true, every preposterous boast legitimate. This went on for over forty years. And the weird thing? He and Ripley never met.

That’s really most of the story, except there’s a semi-revelation at the end, that the narrator of this story is Pearlroth himself, and I say “semi” because I kind of knew that the whole time. But I think that’s part of the narrator’s voice, his character, to end the story with that flourish—I think Pritchard knows we know, but is letting poor Norbert have a moment.

As this is a first-peripheral story, with an out-of-body add-on thrown in, I get a Nick/Gatsby vibe here, that Pearlroth admires Ripley, especially at the story, but there’s also some underlying frustration, even some jealousy. Ripley got to be the face of the venture, the celebrity, while Pearlroth had his books. Maybe I’m misreading that, but maybe not.

Before I conclude, I have to note that Prithcard is an absolute master at sentences. I don’t quote texts here very often, but check out this line from “Pelagia, Old Fool”:

Father Seraphim, many years dead and a venerated saint, arrived to administer the sacraments, and Anna claimed to have seen with her own eyes an angelic being descend through the roof, whisk Pelagi off in its alien arms, and return her, babbling incoherent, at dawn.

And that’s just one example: Most of the story is made up of sentences of that complexity and structure, adding to the absolute joy of reading this piece.

Again, I can’t believe I put off reading this book for so long simply because I’d already read one of Melissa Pritchard’s books. The Odditorium is a beautifully weird collection, chock full of Pritchard’s master over the English language and uncanny ability to spot and peg an oddball. This is a book I want to eat up, reading it so fast, so hard, that it’s like I never avoided it for so long, so stupidly. What a fantastic writer Pritchard is, and what a book she’s given us.

105707763_10108088795760460_4114476907567097805_n

June 28, 2020: “Goliath” by Dave Housley

Sunday Sunday Sunday, Story366!

So today’s the day that starts a significant change to Story366 policy: Today I’m covering an author I’ve already covered here. I mentioned I was going to have to start doing this earlier this week, as I’m fresh out of new books by new authors. It’s by far the easiest of my original Story366 rules to relax, as writers write more than one book, and furthermore, why the heck not? For the most part, I’ll also be covering authors I covered four years ago, when all this started; four years is plenty big a buffer, I think, between entries. So, no big deal—it’s not like these authors are giving me payola to keep them on the airwaives.

Technically, I’ve already double-dipped on authors once, as I covered Dana Diehl and Melissa Goodrich’s co-authored collection back in January, after writing on each of their own collections earlier in the project. They are sort of the beta test to this venture.

As I restock my new-author pile—books are on their way—today will kick off a week of previously covered authors, as I have a bunch of those, books I’ve been saving up for the inevitability of today. I will probably at least link up my first entry on the author (which I do, below), though I probably won’t spend too much time revisiting that original post, no compare and contrast, as I simply don’t want to see myself up for a harder, longer-to-complete task.

I know all of this matters to me much more than it matters to anyone else, but I’m glad I’ve stuck to my rules. It’s allowed me to reach nearly six hundred different authors and collection so far, which is something I’m extremely proud of here. Good for the authors, good for me, good for my readers.

But it’s time to change things up.

Without further ado, here’s the lucky first candidate for a second (solo) entry: Dave Housley, founder and editor of Barrelhouse, and author of Commercial Fiction, which I covered here in March of 2016, focusing on his story, “Cialis.” That books is literally a parody/tribute/send-up of famous TV commercials, and I enjoyed it a lot. Today I read from If I Knew The Way, I Would Take You Home, from Dzanc in 2015. This means I could have covered this book back in 2016 instead, and that it’s been on my shelf for over four years. Ugh. But that’s the great part of Story366—especially now, that I’m doubling up on authors—that I’m finally reading books like this one by Housley, cast aside simply because I’d read his other book. Why did I have that rule again?

To know Housley’s work is to know that he writes about pop culture extensively, as he was not born of humans, but is the offspring of a TV and and a record player; I’ve heard tell he is one-sixteenth film projector on his TV’s side. As I mentioned, his first book is all about commercials, and this one seems to be about music, though that’s not entirely true. The first story is called “Be Gene” and is about a guy named Eddie who has to stoke himself up for his forthcoming gig as Gene Simmons in a KISS cover band. He gets ready—the costume and makeup are easy—but he must become The Demon if he’s doing his job. It’s fun to watch him prep, though it doesn’t help his confidence that he has a short tongue.

“Behind the Music: A Christmas Wish” is told from the perspective of the singer of a one-hit-wonder band, a guy starting every paragraph-long vignette with the line “All I Want for Christmas is …,” and then moving on to things like one more hit, a second chance, and for his bad to actually be able to play, for him to be able to sing. It’s kind of sad; actually, no, it’s really sad. And I love it.

Housley slips a few essays in at the end of the book. I read “How to Listen to Your Old Hair Metal Tapes,” which is one of those second-person imperative stories like “How to Be a Writer” that tells its tale in the form of commands. This one features Dave Housley himself, aka Däve Höusley, who finds his old mix tapes in the basement, gets pumped to listen to them, realizes he doesn’t have a cassette player, but when he finds one, rocks out with his cock out, for days on end.

Today I’m focusing on one of those non-rock stories I warned you about, “Goliath.” Housley starts off inside his protagonist’s nightmare, one in which he, David, is self-aware. David, we find out, is a former child star, and has dreams where he relives old episodes of his TV show, canceled years and years ago, often jolting him awake when he can’t remember a line. So, cool, an ex-child-star story.

When he wakes up, he gets a call from his parents, who want him to watch the family dog while they’re on vacation. David doesn’t really want to, but his parents insist. This will give David the chance to tell his parents about Sandy, his girlfriend, with whom he lives. This is a big no-no, as David grew up super-Christian and living with Sandy is, you know, living in sin. Sandy wants David to take this step, so David agrees, though it seems like there’s more to it, to why he doesn’t want to dogsit Goliath.

There’s a good chance you know where this is going, but I have to admit, I did not, not until Housley reveals it all-out. When David’s parents arrive with Goliath, there’s a short scene where the big Sandy revelation comes out, but that’s understated. The big scene, really, is the first time David is alone with Goliath, soon after, and Goliath starts talking to David. Yep, this is a fractured fictionalization of Davey and Goliath, that kids’ Christian claymation series from the sixties. Boom! Mic drop.

I feel a little dumb that I didn’t catch on to what’s going on here sooner. Maybe it’s because I was thinking this was still going to be a rock ‘n’ roll story somehow. Maybe I’ve had too much fried rice for dinner. Maybe I’ve tried to block the memories of that creepy show out of my head. But Housley got me, so he can punch my arm next time he sees me.

Anyway, David has been trying to leave the TV show behind, move on, especially in terms of faith: David’s not Christian anymore. Goliath is having none of it, though, and every time they’re alone, he preaches to David, to Daaaaavey, about his lapse. David just wants the week to be over, but when he doesn’t listen, Goliath starts to bring the justice of the lord down upon him. Things get knocked over. Sandy’s birth control goes missing. By the end of the story … I won’t reveal the end of the story.

Mind you, in case you forgot, David is made of clay. So is Goliath. Everyone is: It’s a clay world. Housley, however, made me forget all that as I read.

I will sit down and read the rest of If I Knew the Way, I Would Take You Home, as I love Housley’s stories. They’re well crafted, beyond clever, and easier to gobble up than a bowl of popcorn. I can’t tell you how glad I am that I’ve reached this point, that I’m going to be reading more collections by some of my favorite writers, writers I’ve avoided because of some self-induced clause that made no real sense. And to note, I have a third collection by Housley, Massive Cleansing Fire, on my shelf as well. Dare I go for the Housley trifecta? Even more insane? He has a fourth collection, another from Dzanc, Ryan Seacrest Is Famous, and I bet I could get my pals at Dzanc to send me a copy of that one, too. Maybe I should have a Dave Housley week? I guess I’d need like three or four more books for that. But Holy Housley, Batman, what a week it would be.

106174113_10108084274521060_6736337845878555020_n

 

June 27, 2020: “Hungry” by David Bergen

Happy Saturday, Story366!

Today, unexpectedly,  became the day we look forward to all year: Today I got paid.

I get paid every month, by the way, usually on the thirtieth, so this is a few days early—that’s the unexpectedly part of that previous statement. The reason we look forward to this pay day in particular is because the July paycheck is the one where my summer school  pay shows up, the month we have extra money.

In some years, years without COVID-19, we’d be using some of this surplus for a vacation. If things don’t get out of hand, we might still try to camp somewhere at the end of July, get out of the Ozarks for a few days. This isn’t the year to go to Disneyland, though, or anywhere there’s a lot of people. There’s some talk of Mount Rushmore, but that might be a stretch, as it’ll either be too crowded or flat-out closed. Anywhere that’s not here might do. We’ve done here a lot.

What’s really so great about this month’s pay is we can get everything fixed. We used the stimulus money to do some of that, yeah, but every year, some of the things that break down, things that need a professional, get put off until this month. The thirtieth is Tuesday and I was planning to have a plumber in this house, first thing Tuesday, to fix three different sinks, both our toilets, and one of our showers, all of which are semi- to nonfunctional. Could we have had someone out earlier? Probably, though we’re thinking this is going to be a big job, with a big bill, so we put it off, knowing this day was coming. Now, with the early deposit, I get to do this on Monday.

We need an electrician out, too, but that’s less urgent. We need to paint our bathroom. I’ve wanted a weed wacker for a while and our sidewalks look like crap. I’d like to eat beef again. All of that is going to happen this week. I’m pretty excited.

Of course, we’re not really waiting for July 1 every year, chomping at the bit to have this extra money. Yeah, our plumbing situation has been bad, and it’ll be nice to have that taken care of. But I realized something several years ago, right around the time I turned 40: Stop wishing for time to pass . Time is going to disappear quickly enough without me crossing days off a calendar, all in the name of a little bit of money. Money will come and go. We’ve not had money. We’ve had money. In the end, it’s not what makes us happy.

The one thing we always lose, though, is time. We’re getting older. Our kids are getting older. People we know are getting older. To want time to pass more quickly is a privilege of the young.

.Today is that day that problems get solved. But it’s just a day. We took a nice hike, Zoomed with my family, and had dinner together. That, more than money, is what I look forward to. That’s something we can do every day. No need to look ahead.

Today I read from Canadian author David Bergen‘s 2020 collection, Here the Dark, out from Biblioasis. This is a book that got some press upon its release this year, so I was happy to track down a copy, to spend some time with it today, reading the first three stories . Usually, I read the title story, but in this case, that’s a lengthy novella, and I just didn’t put the time aside for that. But I do like what I’ve read here, so I’d like to revisit, see what Bergen does with a slightly longer form (to note, he’s also published nine novels, so he’s probably pretty good at longer).

The first story, “April in Snow Lake,” is about this young man whose girlfriend goes to Italy one summer to help with disaster relief. His pining for her is offset by the fact he works constantly, first driving a truck for an abbatoir and then pouring basements fourteen hours a day. On Sundays, he runs a Christian youth group and falls for one of the 17-year-old attendees, whose father puts him through a near-death experience to earn his daughter’s hand—or perhaps simply kill him.

Next up is “How Can n Men Share a Bottle of Vodka?” a story about a math teacher whose actor wife leaves him for another actor, leading him to fall in with a woman who has five kids. He works through his marital problems by running weird classroom sessions with his students, realizing what really makes him happy.

The story I’m writing about today is “Hungry,” which is my favorite of the three. This one’s about Sandy, whose life is pretty random and unfocused. He’s dating Tiff, who seems to like him, though their sex together makes her sad. He lives with his older brother, James, who’s a psycho dick. He skips high school a lot to work at the car wash, where he’s had to beat the shit out of his boss because his boss was harrassing him. There’s also a little boy named Wanda, a latchkey kid who hangs around their house and watches TV because his mom’s never home.

In the grand scheme of this story and its inhabitants, Sandy is the moral center. As random and unfocused everything above might seem, I’ve described it in a generally positive light. It’s actually much worse, bordering on sad. For one, people seem to pick on Sandy, in general, even though Sandy is good at fighting back. Already in the first paragraph, there’s just some random guy fucking with him, but he deals with it. Like he deals with his boss. At the end of the story, he deals with someone else, quite effectively. So for whatever reason, people screw with him, but he’s up to the challenge. It’s a weird and interesting character trait.

His relationship with Tiff is even more complex. At the start of the story, he finds Tiff leaving someone’s house, this someone having painted words all over Tiff’s body, in bathing-suit-type areas. Sandy blows it off—this someone was a woman—and they go back to his house. Wanda’s there—he’s always there, letting himself in—and after Sandy feeds Wanda (who utters the titular line, “Hungry,” whenever he wants food), they try to have sex but stop short of all-the-way, as remember, this makes Tiff sad.

The real complication in this story, which I’ll reveal somewhat, is when Sandy comes home from a particular errand—involving Wanda—only to find Tiff naked and bouncing up and down on naked James on the living room couch. The story ends, but not before Sandy, once again, avails himself and his sense of honor.

“Hungry” doesn’t have so much of a plot as it has a character acting and reacting in certain situations. I wouldn’t say Sandy changes here, though the situations he has to deal with do escalate, representing some rising action. I like all that about this story, that there isn’t some grand resolution or big shift for Sandy. His world is terrifying, but Bergen makes it interesting, makes me root like hell for this kid, who solves the shit out of his problems. I think I’d follow Sandy anywhere, into the depths of hell and back.

I feel like I should know David Bergen’s work, as Here the Dark is his tenth book. I guess that since this is his first collection, that amply explains why I don’t know him, as I don’t read that many novels. He’s also had more success in Canada than here in the States. But yet again, Story366 does its job and helps me find good stories by a new author. Another day, another victory.

106262836_10108081034808470_4718620025080272152_n