Remember Story magazine? Well, of course you do, as Story still exists, or exists again, and that’s fantastic. If there’s a magazine called Poetry and a magazine called Creative Nonfiction, (and then there’s Poems & Plays) we have to have a magazine called Story. It just makes sense. The latest incarnation of Story is really great, too. As it should be.
When I say, “Remember Story?” I’m talking about the version that existed in the nineties (which is itself the second version of that title), edited by Lois Rosenthal, put out in Cincinnati by the same company who puts out Writer’s Market. That Story was the first lit mag that I ever subscribed to, that I read cover to cover, every issue. It came four times a year, had about a dozen stories in it, and all of them, though eclectic, tended to be great. There were established people in there like Richard Bausch, Charles Baxter, and Jean Thompson, plus some of the first publications for writers like Aimee Bender, Juñot Díaz, and (the late) Amanda Davis. The first story I ever sent out, I sent to Story (and four other places), and a few weeks later, they sent me my first rejection, with a personal little note from Laurie Henry. Ink! On my first rejection! From Story! Of course, I soon learned that she wrote, “Thanks for sending!” or something like it on every rejection, but still, ink! On my first rejection! From Story!
One of the other writers I discovered in Story was Susan Perabo. She wrote funny stories I liked a lot and have kept an eye on her career since. I was quite pleased to see she had a new book coming out this year, a new collection, Why They Run the Way They Do, a book I picked up earlier this afternoon and have been reading all day.
It would be tempting to write about the title story, “Why They Run the Way They Do,” as I like titles stories, like them for this project, and I like that story. It’s about an affair between a receptionist and the lawyer she works for. I was more drawn to “Michael the Armadillo,” however, a story that features my name (the same reason I wrote about Justin Taylor’s “Mike’s Song” a while back), but is also a sadder, weirder story. So, “Michael the Armadillo.”
Perabo plays a bit of a trick on us at the start of the “Michael the Armadillo.” There’s this really interesting opening where the protagonist, Carrie, and her husband, Dan, are avoiding the name Michael. They endure all the celebrities—Jordan, J. Fox, Moore, etc.—and cringe when a Michael’s craft store almost opens in the local shopping center. They have an aversion to the name, because of some trauma it’s caused them, and eventually, they’re able to move on. How Perabo tricks us, or me at least, is making us (me) think that Michael was a child this couple had lost.What’s sadder, giving more cause to avoid, than a dead kid? That had to be it. I braced myself.
But it wasn’t. Turns out, Carrie had an affair with a guy name Michael six years earlier, and not just a one-night stand: This was an ongoing relationship, complete with rendezvous (um, what’s the plural of “rendezvous”?), sexy emails, and no plans to cut it out. That’s why the couple spends six years avoiding the name, as if staying away from it—the most popular boy name in the United States for like twenty years—was going to make the level of Carrie’s infidelity go away.
Stakes not high enough for you? Perabo doubles down and reveals Carrie’s true intentions: When she told Dan about Michael, she wasn’t looking for forgiveness, for the healing to begin; she wanted him to leave her—so she could be with Michael. Instead, Dan got all emotional, then he cleaned the house, made her a great dinner, and rededicated himself to her, swearing they could begin anew. Carrie didn’t have the heart for another binge of honesty, so she stayed with him. She broke it off with Michael, they had a kid (Chloe), and for six years, they lived Michael-free.
Until, that is, Chloe’s grandma sends her a stuffed armadillo and Chloe immediately names it Michael. Both parents are shocked, not even knowing where Chloe heard that name (they’re in some denial here), but are forced to live with Michael the Armadillo, as it becomes Chloe’s inseparable companion. Wherever Chloe goes, so goes Michael, and she’s not shy about saying his name aloud a few hundred times a day.
The stuffed armadillo becomes a metaphor then, maybe even a symbol. A metaphor for the human, home-wrecking Michael, that’s obvious, but in more general ways as well. Perabo is illustrating how you can never really escape something like Carrie’s affair, that eventually, that kind of egregious act will always come back, can never really be forgotten. In a way, no matter what they do, Carrie and Dan will always have this elephant, or armadillo, in the room. Maybe you can close your eyes for a while, but when you open them, there it is, looming, obvious, demanding of your attention.
Side note on armadillos: In Missouri, armadillos are almost as plentiful as they are in Texas. How can I tell? Because the highways of Missouri are littered with their dead carcasses, especially in the summer. The weird thing is, I’ve never seen a live armadillo, not after four years in Missouri, not in my whole life, and am more or less convinced that armadillos are a born dead and flat and sprout from potholes in the middle of the interstate. I’m even watching a YouTube video right now of an armadillo taking a bath—look it up—and I’m still not convinced. “But Mike,” you posit, “you’re watching a video of a live armadillo taking a bath.” You know how they do that? CGI.
Carrie and Dan eventually have to face Michael the Armadillo, deal with it, or it’ll be in their lives forever, staring at them with its black eyes and pointy little face. They do. More or less.
Susan Perago is a writer of great talent and prowess and if you haven’t read her, or picked up Why They Run the Way They Do, get out there. She’s one of our great storytellers.