March 21: “Ten Things” by Leslie Pietrzyk

Happy Monday, Story366! Welcome to the week. We’ll have one more “normal” week of posts, but then next week, as I prep for AWP, I’ll be theming my posts around that, plus, of course, hoping that I can manage to post during all the craziness that will be AWP in LA. Usually, I don’t have five minutes to call home—not sure where I’m going to come up with a post five straight days.

Today’s spotlight is on Leslie Pietrzyk. I was planning to cover her on Saturday, for kind of a silly reason, because it was St. Joseph’s Day. What’s St. Joseph’s Day, you ask? Really nothing. Aside from being the foster dad of Jesus C., he’s also the patron saint of Poland. I don’t remember ever celebrating St. Joseph’s Day as a kid, and really, if I didn’t celebrate it, a Polish Catholic kid in Chicago, then it must not be a thing. I guess in Poland, it’s a bit more like how the Irish celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. But anyway, I said something in my post on St. Patrick’s Day that I would cover a Polish writer for St. Joseph’s Day, kiddingly, and called out Leslie Pietrzyk (pronounced PYEH-chock, by the way, if you’re my mom), who has a new book, someone on my list, anyway. Then Leslie wrote me on FB and told me to bring it on. Then I joked that I’d have to find out when St. Joseph’s Day was. I did. It was Saturday—two days later. I ordered her book on Amazon Prime, they promised it would come on Saturday, but it didn’t. Instead, I read Robert Stone (who’s probably not at all Polish), and Leslie’s book arrive Sunday morning. That should bring you all up to date.

Pietrzyk’s book This Angel Is on My Chest won the Drue Heinz prize and came out late last year from University of Pittsburgh Press. It’s a book of stories linked by a common theme: All of the protagonists are young widows. They have all survived the death of their husbands, all of whom died young. In the stories I’ve read—the first four—that age is between thirty-seven and forty-two, which is certainly young, though the dust jacket proclaims the husbands will be younger in some stories. It’s a specific theme for a story collection, one that gives all of its protagonists a common experience. So far, all of the protagonists have, in general, the same traits you’d expect, think about the same things. They’re surprised. They didn’t expect it. They’re angry. They’re lonely. And of course, they’re sad, depressed, and devastated. I suppose it’s possible to play the widow card differently, that maybe one of the widows isn’t all that sad to be a widow. Maybe, even, one of them killed the husband—it would be a way to explore this character the way I explored breakups in my last book, trying to get at it from every angle. While that’s possible in This Angel on My Chest, I’m not getting that feel. The first four stories don’t show that type of variation, and the info on the dust jacket doesn’t seem all that playful. There’s a somber mood about this book, one that addresses the stages of grief, particularly recovery. I don’t think we’ll have any black widows here. Just widows.

Before heading into the story, one more thing to note: I know Pietrzyk from writing circles, from Facebook, and I think I’ve met her once or twice at conferences or polka jamborees or whatever. I suspected this, but getting the book confirmed the fact that Pietrzyk experienced this very tragedy herself, her own husband dying at thirty-seven, one morning at the breakfast table. This makes sense, from a writer’s perspective, and a human’s, as otherwise, why would someone go down this path? Not to mention, how would they write about it with such passion, accuracy, and insight?

“Ten Things” is the first story in This Angel on My Chest, and is exactly that, ten things. It’s a list story, ten details about the nameless protagonist’s husband that she remembers. The ten things range from in jokes, to descriptions, to predictions. The first, and most chilling, is how the husband often joked about dying young—one of those in jokes—the most sadly ironic. It’s a move by Pietrzyk, putting this first, staking claim to the reality of the situation. Later, then, when it’s revealed that the husband had called the narrator “Avocado” for a cutesy reason, the ironic self-prophecy still hangs. Yikes.

In the first sentence of each of the ten sections, Pietrzyk relays what the thing is, then follows with an anecdote explaining its significance, not only to their relationship, but why it’s important now, what makes her never forget it, what makes her bring it up. The ten anecdotes, being anecdotes, all tell their own stories, are all interesting and well told, and add up to a clear view of the intact couple, sweet, in love, thinking they’d have forever.

Leslie Pietrzyk takes on a huge burden with this project, this collection. It’s easy to look at it as a coping mechanism, her way of making sense of her own tragedy. Or maybe it’s not that simple—no one’s asking for my Psych 101 analysis to explain her motivations. Either way, what’s at the heart of this book, these stories, is a lot of talent. Along with the list story, I read a story that takes the form of a quiz, of the reading comprehension variety, along with some shorts. There are also traditional stories as well, at least from the looks of them, thumbing through. I feel for the protagonists, no matter what the stories are, and that’s not because of the obvious tragedy. It’s because this writer makes everyone into people instead of tropes, people who do things, need things, want things, and forsake things. I’d bet Pietrzyk could write this book even without this tragedy, or any other, in her own life. She’s got the chops. That’s pretty clear.

Leslie Pietrzyk