February 26: “The Cucumber King of Kėdainiai” by Wendell Mayo

It’s Friday! On desk calendar-based week, that means that we are on day six, meaning that I’m ready with the sixth installment of this week’s special Story366 theme, Bowling Green Creative Writing Program alum. And because I can do whatever I want, I’m varying from the theme just a bit, today highlighting the work of Wendell Mayo, longtime BG fiction professor and mentor to so many writers for so many years. Wendell didn’t go to BG for his degrees—he went to Ohio for his PhD and Vermont College for his MFA—but he’s certainly an integral part of the family, a BG institution, even, like unpredictable weather and that Toledo Rocket stink wafting down I-75.

A little background on Wendell Mayo, at least on how he got to BG. When I came to the school in 1995, two of their longtime fiction professors had just retired, as in, the semester before. The school was shorthanded, to be modest, and because we’re talking about higher ed, there were certain powers within the English Department who saw this as an opportunity to perhaps cut the program, to not hire replacements for these retirees (both of whom had been on staff since the sixties), to allot those resources elsewhere. While the program was not doubt in transition, killing it seemed irrational. Bowling Green’s program is the third-oldest in the country (behind Iowa and UNC-Greensboro), has a bevy of famous alum (hence this week’s theme), and still had other talented faculty members there, along with a PhD program (which was, in fact, cut a few years later), to keep things going. The program had also just celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary with a big reunion party a couple of years earlier, so support from alum was high. Last but not least, there was me and my classmates, unwitting factors, and there was no way any of us wanted to be part of the program’s last class. Apparently, though, this was on the table, at meetings we weren’t invited to.

Common sense won out at these meetings, and the department and college decided to run a search for a fiction writer (albeit just one), and that search resulted in Wendell Mayo. Immediately upon his arrival that fall, Wendell began instituting many of the policies that would form the program for years to come, but an attitude as well, a point of view. Wendell brought not only life, but enthusiasm, proving that the program was worth saving, and was worthy of being great again. Wendell ushered in a new generation, the program’s next generation, more or less. So much of its success, the success of its graduates, is because he came in and made a lot of sensible, smart decisions. He didn’t make the choice to run his job search, but once he stepped foot on campus, the dominoes fell, and the program has been thriving since.

So, that mushy stuff out of the way, I should start discussing today’s story, “The Cucumber King of Kėdainiai” from Mayo’s fourth and most recent collection, The Cucumber King of Kėdeainiai. I have to admit, I can’t pronounce the name of the Lithuanian city in the title, but am glad that Macs have the function where you can hold down a letter, and in a second or two, an array of that letter with different diacritical marks appears so you can choose things like Es with dots over them. None of this is in the story—people just say the name instead of typing it. It’s actually about this unnamed American, traveling with a woman named Valentine, and both are invited to the castle of a local Lithuanian mobster, the Cucumber King of Kėdainiai. Why have they been invited to the king’s castle? Because they are American, for no lesser or greater reason. The couple travel across the lush Lithuanian countryside on their journey—Mayo’s great at description—giving us time to get to know who’s in the story and where they are.

Readers who know Mayo or his work know that quite often, he spends his summers in Lithuania, sometimes entire years, when he can score a sabbatical, and he has since set up creative writing workshops there as well. Mayo grew up in Texas and Ohio, but he has a pretty firm grasp of this former Soviet country, and this is his second collection set there. The first, In Lithuanian Wood, featured a character named Paul Rood, and after reading a few of the stories in The Cucumber King, I’m still wondering if the unnamed protagonist is again Rood. So, not sure, but I’m not sure it matters.

Mayo sets up limitless possibility in this piece, a Pandora’s box of what could happen next. Two foreigners, in a strange (to them) country, asked to go to a mobster’s castle? Anything can be in that castle, anything can happen. It’s Door #3, basically, on Let’s Make a Deal, the lure of the unknown carrying the couple, and Mayo’s readers, into what happens next. Of course, threat of death is eminent. A mobster who owns a castle probably wouldn’t bother bringing a pair of travelers to his home just to kill them, but imagine being in their shoes, wondering what this guy wants from you, whether you’ll make it back, and why the heck they call him the Cucumber King.

Inside the castle, anything really does happen, and without giving too much away, Valentine and the Cucumber King square off, not in a fight, not in some romantic tryst, but in another way, one that’s funny, disarming, and completely out of right field. Whenever my students write a story with this setup—characters entering unchartered waters—I tell them they have to be unpredictable. Mayo is that, among other things, making for a wonderfully fun and inventive story and resolution.

A program’s alumni serve as testaments to what a program is, what it does, and what it’s capable of, but really, the faculty are the ones that make up the program, guide it, shape it, determine its successes, both long-term and short. Wendell Mayo has done that with his mere presence, but also his hard work, sound decisions, and last but not least, his professionalism, modeling for us all how writing professors have to be good writers, too. In The Cucumber King of Kėdainiai, Mayo does just that, and it’s by far my favorite of his (so far).

Wendell Mayo