May 19: “Swimming” by Karen Brown

Greetings, Story366! I am home, back in Missouri, after a couple of days in Chicago for my Wrigley Field orientation. It was an action-packed couple of days for sure, as I not only got to go hang out at the home of the beloved, but I got to hang in the city a bit. Yesterday, I was going to fill you in on what I did, but I was posting really late and was happy just to the rundown of John Jodzio’s awesome story posted by midnight. It’s not much earlier tonight, but since it’s all short story and Story366-related, I can spare some paragraphs.

Nothing I have to share is  all that shocking. What I got to do for the first time since I started Story366 was go into a big-city used bookstore and look for collections to write about. There’s a couple such places here in Springfield, and they’re decent used bookstores, but they don’t carry much in the way of story collections; what this means, of course, is that Springfieldians aren’t buying new story collections and selling them to these used bookstores. In any case, I once visited one such store, a store that has a massive collection of contemporary fiction—all of it in novel form. It’s kind of amazing how up-to-date their used selection was, books that had come out within a couple of months of my visit, yet used and on their shelf. After spending quite some time browsing (and not finding anything), the owner asked me if I he could help me. I told him what I was looking for and he without hesitation said that they didn’t have a single collection for sale. I asked how it was possible to have over a thousand novels and not a single book of stories. He just shrugged. Weird. Uncanny, even.

In Chicago, however, that was no problem. While up in Lakeview, I visited a place that I think is called Books & Records (actually, it’s called Bookworks), up on Clark and Sheffield. I’ve been in there dozens of times before, but not since the blog began. I found several books with a cursory run through the aisles, and then I headed south. Chicago used to have at least three Powell’s Used Bookstores—the chain that originated in Portland and still thrives there—including one up on Lincoln that I’d been to. That one was closed, as it turned out, as was the one by UIC, so I went down to the last open store, in Hyde Park, right by the Museum of Science & Industry. Great little shop there, and I found about twenty-five new collections to read from this year, spending over an hour slowly scanning the shelves.

13233008_10103468825138620_7125993284088208670_nSo, in short, I had a nice trip. I got to see Wrigley. I got to browse bookstores. I got to eat real pizza and a couple of Chicago dogs, including a Dogzilla from Byron’s, my favorite thing to eat in the entire city.

13087668_10103468522550010_4923679364594901353_nGood trip.

Today, I also got to read from Karen Brown’s collection Little Sinners and Other Stories, a winner of a Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction, out from the University of Nebraska Press. I’ve read work by Brown before—she had a story in Best American Short Stories not all that long ago. I’ve seen her work in magazines as well, but have not gotten all the familiar with her work until today.

I read the first couple of stories in this collection, firstly the the lead-off and title story, “Little Sinners,” and knew immediately that I will be sharing this story with students for what it does with point of view, using first person, second person, and some first person plural, all for a very effective and unique telling.

I’m writing about “Swimming” today instead, a story about a woman named Elise, living in a gated community, a gated community where everyone has backyard swimming pools and also likes to have neighborhood parties that stretch out from yard to yard. The story starts on a Memorial Day, at the end of such a party, a lot of party trash floating in the pools, some of the people in their underwear, fresh from a drunken midnight swim. anew couple is in the hood, young and beautiful, and they want to hear the legend of a couple of ghosts that have been seen, over the years, skinny dipping in various back yards, making love in the moonlight, a couple seen but never confronted or proven to be real.

We hear the story of these ghost lovers through Elise’s eyes (though one of the neighborhood women, the woman to first see the pair, actually tells the story at the party), as she flashes back to when her and her husband were new to the neighborhood, her husband gone a lot for work, her time spent watching their toddler daughter, but not much else. Enter Joe, a recent neighborhood divorcee, someone who takes a liking to Elise. Without much seduction, or hesitation, Elise takes Joe’s bait, and an affair ensues.

Getting back to the main narrative, that Memorial Day, the tale of the ghost swimmers being relayed to the young and beautiful new couple. Elise’s affair has long since ended, but it’s not too hard to figure out where all of this has been going: Elise and Joe were the ghost swimmers, choosing, for young and reckless reasons, to engage in their activities in public, in their neighbors’ pools, something that Elise—still with her unaware husband—relishes, this daring and carefree time from her youth, one that has been immortalized as a ghost story. And really, how interesting, to behave so badly, to not get caught, but then have your antics turned into the stuff of myth and legend by your friends. If you’re going to sin, what a way to sin. What a legacy.

There’s more to the story than this, of course, or otherwise, I wouldn’t have revealed so much—we figure out that Elise and Joe are the mysterious skinny dippers pretty early in the piece, and as noted, once the affair begins, it’s not to hard to figure out where Brown is going with this long backstory passage. I guess that maybe I thought, early on, that this really was a ghost story, that maybe these lovers were some dead couple who died in each other’s arms, maybe in a pool in this neighborhood, a power line falling into the water as they embraced. But it’s really not that kind of story, and that’s evident pretty soon. Instead, it’s a story about language and description, loss and memory. It’s a story about perspective and voice, a story I liked very much. I also appreciate the nod to Cheever’s “The Swimmer” that Brown fits in, as I was thinking, right up to that nod, of that story, all those pools and backyards connected, these horny phantoms moving from pool to pool to bone, kind of how Burt Lancaster goes from pool to pool to drink scotch and wither into irrelevance.

In any case, I like the stories I’ve read in Karen Brown’s Little Sinners, as she has a way with, among other things, how stories are told, from what point in time, from what vantage, from what character. I can’t say that this is the hallmark of the book—the passion felt by her characters really stands out—but I like what she does and I want to read more.