A couple of weeks ago, I did my last reading from I Will Love You for the Rest of My Life: Breakup Stories up at the University of Central Missouri, invited by the super-cool Phong Nguyen. Phong and I have a couple of things in common, mostly how we tied in 2014 for the NBA’s “Most Unpronounceable Last Name” award—the plaque adorns my office wall, alongside my clown college diploma—and that we found jobs at state universities in Missouri and are probably going to teach here together for the next twenty-five years. Phong had me and Trudy Lewis in that day, and I couldn’t be in better company, a fine way to end a book tour.
During our introduction, Phong mentioned something I hadn’t heard or thought of before, when he called Trudy and I “Missouri authors.” My gaze widened a bit at that point. Trudy has been teaching at Missouri for over twenty years, so I’m sure that didn’t phase her. But I, poster child for the city of Chicago with my booming voice, persistent Cubs gear, and deep-dish physique, had never been referred to as a Missouri anything. I’m still getting used to things like personal property taxes, privatized trash pickup, and the fact that everyone here has a gun (right, Lucas Southworth?). Was I Missouri author? Am I a Missourian?
Because Phong’s words were a compliment, and I was in such good company, it was easy to fall into the moniker, to nod. I realized that yeah, after three and a half years, I’m a Missourian, a show-me man, and an Ozarkian. The literary company alone makes it worthwhile. Next thing you know, I’ll be calling pop “soda,” insisting my pork only comes pulled, and saying, without irony, “Missoura.”
Go Cubs, by the way, just so we’re clear.
At that reading, I met another Missouri writer, another displaced soul settled here in Truman’s state, R.M. Kinder, known to her friends as Rose Marie. Rose Marie introduced herself before the reading, said she had been in a writer’s group with Trudy and Phong, and that she’d read my book. I was happy to find out that she’d be joining us later for dinner. The four of us ate sushi, talked books, and lingered, one of the more enjoyable nights I’ve had in a while. It was during this dinner that I realized that Rose Marie was the writer R.M. Kinder, that I’d seen her name before, perhaps read something, that this person was somebody who I’d been aware of. Anyone in the writing world knows how small our community is, and this is just another example, another pleasant surprise. I ordered Kinder’s book, A Near-Perfect Gift, first thing the next morning, and am featuring its first story, “Going Into Battle” here on Story366 today.
“Going into Battle” is the tale of some young boys, in a small town, who decide to exorcise the local witches. It’s not as fantastic as that, though; the boys notice that a couple of senior gals living on at the poor edge of town, neighborhood stalwarts, really, one in a trailer and one in a tiny cabin, and take for granted that they’re witches—a pretty big assumption, considering their plan. That plan? To break into their residences, steal something personal from each, because that’s how you exorcise witches—you use something personal, say some incantations, and then they’re gone. One of the boys, the narrator, did a report on witches once, so he knows. Like Tom and Huck—along with two unreliable friends who keep mucking everything up—they set out on their adventure, with conviction.
The fact that the two women aren’t witches is apparent to the reader the whole time, and that’s the key to this story’s success. Kinder spends the first couple of pages describing the women, and clearly, their supposed witch attributes are just them being old; the boys describe them as being between fifty and eighty—they just don’t know. The suspense in the story, then, is finding out just how far these boys will go to harass these poor ladies. It’s pretty far, we find out, as Kinder sees her boys carry their plan out to the point of no return. These are just boys, but when they become aware of their mistake, they don’t exactly pull back.
Binder’s technical prowess serves her story well. She nearly employs a communal narrator, the early descriptions of the women coming from a “we,” but the narrator breaks off soon after, falling into first singular, when the plan begins to unravel. The unreliability works well, making their actions cringe-worthy, and past tense serves her well, too, as the perspective added to the story’s end helps to shape the entire narrative.
I enjoyed “Going into Battle” a great deal, as I did the other stories from A Near-Perfect Gift that I read. R.M. Kinder favors stories about about youth gone astray, ideal times losing their innocence, one person at a time. Every story seems to be a Norman Rockwell painting played out, that little quirk we read into someone’s face building into mischief, then out-and-out bad behavior. I’m so glad that I ran into R.M., got to share a meal with her, am showcasing her work. After all, us Missouri writers have to stick together.