March 25, 2016: “Train Shots” by Vanessa Blakeslee

Does anyone observe the Catholic Good Friday tradition of shutting down all modern conveniences, all pleasantries, between the hours of noon and three in the afternoon? This is done to commemorate the three hours that Christ died on the cross. As it’s Good Friday, 2016, that means it’s the 1,983th anniversary of the original occasion (if A.D. time started in year 0 and Christ died when he was 33, as I’ve been generally told my whole life), and I wonder when this noon until three p.m. thing started. I’ve found a lot of mention of this practice online, but not a whole lot of its origin. According to a couple of Catholic websites, Catholics (or everybody—that’s what they’re implying, right?) should hold three hours of silence, for introspection, prayer, etc., and not watch TV, listen to the radio, talk on the phone, or play video games; I’m assuming Facebooking, Tweeting, and yes, even blogging, is included on this list. As I thought about that today, it struck me how closely it resembles the Jewish tradition of shomer Shabbos, which has similar observations, though Jews who practice this tradition do so every Friday at dusk until sundown on Saturday. The list of activities, according to Wikipedia, is more geared toward “creative” acts—which I never knew—like cooking, operating machinery or electronics, or spending money. At the same time, they’re supposed to practice the commandments of the Sabbath, which include prayer, sacred meals, kindness, benignity, and sexual intercourse with their spouse. Before this, what I knew about shomer Shabbos had been limitd to The Big Lebowski, what John Goodm … hey, wait?! Does it really say “sexual intercourse,” and did I just retype it?!  That can’t be true, can’t it? I looked it up, outside of Wikipedia, and yep, that’s a Sabbath commandment, doing it. This is different, I’ll venture, from the noon-to-three Catholic doctrine, though I can’t find anything online that specifically says Catholics shouldn’t have sex from noon until three today. I just assume. It’ weird because those three hours might be the only three hours of the year that the Catholic church doesn’t want married people doing it.

What does this have to do with Vanessa Blakeslee and her fine collection Train Shots? Nothing, of course. Today’s Good Friday, though, and so far this year, I’ve been marking holidays with a story somewhat related to the day, though I don’t really think Good Friday is a holiday, not in the traditional sense. Still, I found out an interesting fact and thought I’d share it. That’s the magic of Story366.

I’ve read several stories from Train Shots for today, but again, will settle on the title story, also the last story in the book. The first story is a short, “Clock In,” and is a truncated version of Daniel Orozco’s “Orientation,” set in a Chi-Chi’s-type restaurant, and the next is “Ask Jesus,” about a troubled couple set to go to a Halloween party. I like both of these stories (both feature a character names Erica, and I wonder if it’s th same Erica, and if Erica comes back again later), but think that “Train Shots” is the best of the three. Part of this is because it just is—I get to be judge here—and partly because it reminds me of a story I published by Blakeslee a couple of years ago in Moon City Review, “Stand by to Disembark.” In that story, a young seaman desperately wants off a fishing vessel working off the coast of Alaska, and when I taught that story in my classes (I teach from Moon City Review every semester), I noted how beyond herself the author had reached. Blakeslee has never served on fishing vessel, has never lived in Alaska, and for that matter, isn’t a guy. It’s a nice lesson in moving away from  that “write what you know” crap, how creativity, plus a little research, can lead to some great things.

“Train Shots” is a lot like “Stand by to Disembark” in that way. The protagonist, a train engineer named P.T., drives over a woman outside a college town, killing her, of course, his pulling of the emergency brake more of a recovery and insurance effort than a realistic attempt to save the woman. Because the woman—dressed up for the occasion—stretches herself like a board as the train makes contact, P.T. (and investigators) assume suicide. Still,  P.T. is understandably shaken by the event, as it’s the third such incident in the past few weeks (on top of all the cows and deer). Suicide or accident or whathaveyou, the railroad agrees to bring in a replacement to finish P.T.’s route, put him up in a nice hotel for the night, and fly him home the next day. I’ve seen countless cop dramas about cops shooting people—in the line of duty—and getting offers from their normally hard-ass sergeants to take some time off, to make sure they’re okay (but they never do, unless ordered to), but I’ve never seen it done with a train engineer. So, cool.

Blakeless pays off on the concept’s promise by taking P.T. down different an unpredictable paths in his night in town. He runs into a couple of college coeds, then again later. A cop on the scene  offers his card, which P.T. uses later on (yeah, cops have cards—my pal Mike Jones is a cop and he gives them out to people he arrests and stuff). Obviously, P.T. thinks about the woman whose life ended and obviously he blames himself, though he could not have saved her, her life never in his hands. The story ends with a lot of self reflection and a bit of an epiphany, and the writing is particularly sharp on that last page—it’s reminiscent of Joyce’s “The Dead,” though there’s no Gretta, no Michael Fury, no snow. Just poor P.T., looking out over the balcony of his hotel room, readjusting his place in the world.

Train Shots, out in 2014 from Burrow Press, is an impressive debut collection, and for it, Vanessa Blakeslee was in the conversation for several honors and awards, including the  Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. She also put a novel out on my press, Curbside Splendor, just last year. And here is the point in the blog where I usually try to tie the writer/story of the day to my intro, but really, I still got nothing. Just have a good weekend and read Vanessa Blakeslee!

Vanessa Blakeslee