February 16: “Shelter” by Alden Jones

Happy day! It’s the first day since Saturday I don’t have a holiday-themed post, mainly (wholly) because there’s no holiday today. Actually, today would have been a great day for a breakup story—I just heard on the radio that the days after Valentine’s Day are the most frequent days for relationships to end; people in failing partnerships either wait for V-Day to be over because they don’t have the heart to do it right before, or they’re using the it as the final determinant, as if dinner, and candy, and flowers might make up for a shitty rest of the year. To note, I heard this on Nikki Sixx’s syndicated classic rock show, from Nikki Sixx himself, which is why I’m not trusting the information enough to base a blog post on it. That, and I’ve really wanted to read Alden Jones for a while. Sorry, Nikki: Maybe try citing a source once in a while.

Today’s story, “Shelter,” comes from Jones’ debut collection, Unaccompanied Minors, from New American Press and the incredible duo of Okla Elliott and Dave Bowen. Kyle Minor picked this book for their 2013 fiction prize. I got to read at an indie lit event at AWP last year (my non-shanty event), sharing the stage with Jones and a dozen other writers. It was a fun night, in loaf-of-bread-shaped room in the back of a bar,  one of the highlights of the weekend in Minneapolis.

As it turns out, Unaccompanied Minors is more than just a title of one of the stories in Jones’ book, as it’s also a truth, a theme: All the protagonists in these stories are kids, and yep, unaccompanied. As it usually does in such the case, trouble ensues. The first time my parents left me alone in their house for any stretch of time (to go to a bingo at our church), the second they turned the corner, I implemented my much thought-out plan. I first looked through their closet, not sure of what I’d find, but did. I then lit some fireworks behind the garage, a pack of firecrackers I had hidden in my room. Then … well, I’ll just stop right there. The minors in Jones’ story fid much more trouble than I ever did (partly because they get caught), as they get pregnant, become prostitutes, and look on as a kid drowns in a pool. The protagonist in “Shelter” is a homeless alcoholic runaway, a young girl who takes up with an even younger girl named Spike. They end up at a shelter in Asheville, North Carolina, and throughout the story, our nameless speaker comments on how she can’t believe she’s staying in a shelter in Asheville, North Carolina. I’m guessing a lot of newly homeless people have these thoughts, wondering how they end up at shelters, how things got so bad. It seemed real to me, the repetition of this obvious question.

Spike and our narrator find a bevy of colorful characters and situation at the shelter, but really, the story’s about them, their relationship. The narrator constantly denies she is a lesbian, but she and Spike have sex, and pretty often. More than the physical element, the narrator is protective of Spike, and of their relationship, and anything that threatens their existence as a unit is not okay. She may be tough as nails, the wise alpha of the pair, but Jones’ reveals a vulnerability that becomes more and more apparent and the story moves forward.

Jones’ best trick is the voice she writes in, her style lending itself to a frenetic, manic speaker, someone who layers detail upon detail, anecdote after anecdote, no breaks for dialogue, all of it adding up to one long monologue. The story’s told in present tense, but it still feels like a story the narrator is telling someone, sort of like “So this one time, me and Spike, we were in North Carolina ….” I read four of the seven stories in Unaccompanied Minors, and all of the narrators have a variation on this voice; it seems to be Jones’ way of depicting teens, fast-talkers who more or less spill their minds out as soon as something pops in there. Maybe that’s not how all teens think, talk, or tell stories, but it works, and the slight variations keep them from becoming redundant, from sounding like the same teen throughout.

Alden Jones is one of the talented authors published by New American Press, her stories fast-paced, human, and a reminder of why minors are designated as such, in the eyes of the law, but emotionally, too. Jones is able to depict not only the mistakes that result from youth and inexperience, but how these characters arrive at these mistakes. It’s not as easy of an answer as we’d like to imagine. If we all think back to being that age, weren’t we just a bad break, or a bad choice or two, or one time getting caught, away from some serious shit?

Alden Jones