Hello from the road, Story366! As today is the second day of my summer break, I’m starting to get this and that done, things that have been piling up around the house and the office. First things first, though, I’m heading to Chicago for what is always the longest day of every year for me: Beer vendor sign-up and orientation at Wrigley Field. It’s a six-hour meeting where I fill out paperwork, take a food safety and alcohol training quizzes, and get my new ID for the year, all of which takes about ninety minutes, leaving around four and a half hours to sit and wait and watch as other people being orientated ask dumb questions and screw up their I-9s. Still, I get to do this inside Wrigley Field, which is like a Catholic being stuck inside St. Peter’s Basilica or a hot dog fanatic being stuck inside an abattoir. Well, sort of, but as both a (lapsed) Catholic and a hot-dog fanatic, I think the comparison holds up.
Anyway, I just realized that maybe you don’t have a clue what I’m talking about. Hey, Mike, why are you being orientated to vend beer at Wrigley Field? I thought you were a writer, editor, daily short story blogger, and creative writing professor living in Missouri? All true, yes, but since 1989, I’ve also worked at Wrigley Field, selling stuff in the seats; before I turned 21, that was pop, ice cream, hot dogs, peanuts, etc., but since I turned 21, it’s been beer. Since the nice folks who run concessions at Wrigley are real lenient on how often you have to show up, I got the job when I was 15 and I’ve never quit, not when I went to college, to grad school, or moved to Springfield to be a professor. There’s not a lot of professor beer vendors, but a whole lot of professionals have done what I have, moving on to careers and keeping the job for weekends (or for me, summers), lawyers, engineers, ad execs, and a bunch of teachers. This will be my twenty-eighth year at Wrigley, but before I can start, I gotta drive up, do this six-hour meeting tomorrow, get myself certified. As a result, I’m always TIPS-trained to serve alcohol in the United States, know what temperature OSHA requires spoilable food to be to serve it to the public, and am well versed in dram shop laws. Take that, college!
But I also read short stories and will continue the blog, of course, all summer. A lot of my posts will have a flavor of me going to Wrigley, living in Chicago some (hopefully, all of July), and how that work, that commitment, affects my posts. It should be fun. And since the Cubs are wrecking their way through the league so far, I should be in a fairly good mood most of the summer—I’m sure the daily authors I cover will be grateful for that, too.
Today’s author/book is Beth Bosworth and her collection The Source of Life and Other Stories, out from the fine people at the University of Pittsburgh Press (thank God for ketchup) as a winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize. I’ve seen stories here and there by Bosworth in lit magazines over the years, but not a book. I only just friended her on FB yesterday, which she kindly accepted. So for the most part, I went into The Source of Life completely raw.
And what a great surprise it was to read these great stories. Well, not a surprise—that sounds like I was expecting the book to suck—but since I hadn’t known her work before, I now know that I’ve been missing out on great work—that kind of surprise. I read the first few stories, plus the two-page short at the end, and really admire what Bosworth does with exposition, with language, with characterization, and mostly, for what she does not tell her reader.
The title story, “The Source of Life,” is the best example of this. “The Source of Life” is the story of Arielle Steinbaum, a woman living somewhere outside of New York, in an isolated rural-type place, and apparently, the world is coming to an end. At least that’s the impression I got when I read this story the first time. Bosworth sticks us in some near-future, the world gone to pot, water (aka, the source of life) a rare commodity. People have so screwed the environment, little outskirts places like the one Arielle lives in just don’t have any outlet for clean water. The local lake is shit, and Arielle’s pipes are busted. She tries calling a plumber, but the first three don’t respond, so she tries Mr. Pike, a semi-retired plumber neighbor, and she wants him to not only come fix the pipes, but get rid of the bags of garbage piling up in her barn.
So, cool, post-apocalypse! An environmental twist! Maybe there will be C.H.U.D.S. or zombies or whatever, as maybe, just maybe, those claw marks in the garbage bags in the garage aren’t raccoons, and maybe, just maybe, Arielle’s dogs are freaking out because some unholy monster is about to feast on their mommy.
Or maybe not. Again, this is all based on the feeling I got while reading the first half of “The Source of Life,” because as I got further along—we get a lot more backstory involving Arielle’s son, Zander (aka,Alexander), as well as her husband, a shock-topic radio host in NYC. We even run into Mr. Pike out on a dog-walking trip, an encounter that makes up one of the weirdest conversations I’ve ever read in fiction, and I’ve read some pretty weird shit.
In the end (which I won’t reveal), I was starting to get the idea that what Arielle was reporting maybe wasn’t what Arielle was actually seeing. Or, what Bosworth had Arielle report isn’t exactly reality. Is there some sort of water shortage, signaling the end of days, caused by mankind’s negligence? Or is Arielle just losing it. We know, for example, that Zander has gone missing, maybe because they had a falling out, and maybe this has been too much for Arielle. It’s a fact she laments, a fact that her husband deals with on his talk show with his listening audience. Or maybe Arielle doesn’t have water because of a septic problem and the local lake doesn’t have clean water because of a local pollution problem, not some Revelations thing. That doesn’t explain why some skater punks are pulling sprinkler systems out of the ground near Arielle’s house, or why Arnold (Arielle’s husband) suggests she go into the city for cleaner water; or maybe punks are just being punks and maybe Arnold is right, that NYC just has better water than the local well tap where Arielle lives.
I really loved figuring this story out, or not figuring it out, so much so I read it a couple more times so I could write about it here with remote authority. After three reads, I’m still not 100 percent sure I could pass a quiz on the story in a class—I might be missing something (as I often do), that for every other reader, clearly answers all these questions. I hope not, though, because I hate not getting stories, almost as much as I love an author of Bosworth’s skill level making that line between reality and delusion intentionally. I’m betting on the latter, that this is all part of what Bosworth does—other stories I’ve read tell me that this is it, that she’s not the kind of writer who’s going to hit you over the head with answers. Instead, she’s going to write a fantastic, complex story about a multi-dimensional character that can be interpreted in different ways. “The Source of Life” is a story like that.
I’m writing about this at a McDonald’s outside St. Louis, always a good place to catch free Wi-Fi and bottomless fountain pop. On previous trips to Chicago this year, I’ve blogged about Adam Schuitema and H.E. Francis, and I’m sure when I head back to Missouri on Thursday, I’ll stop at a McDonald’s to get my post up once again. Wait! This has all of a sudden become an ad for Mickey D’s, when really, I should be using this space and time to pitch Beth Bosworth and The Source of Life and Other Stories. It’s a gem of a book, a gem of a find for me.