Happy Thursday, Story366. I’m sitting in a waiting room at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, supporting a close relative as she has some surgery. Actually, the surgery is done and she’s in recovery, and we’ll wait a few hours for her to wake up in the ICU so we can see her. So, thumbs up so far on that, a heart procedure, which is always risky, though this seems to have gone swimmingly.
The funny thing about this trip is that my family caravanned from my mom’s place up to the hospital—there’s seven of us—and I just assumed this place was up in Evanston. Nope. NMH is in the heart of the city, in Streeterville, and my family kinda laughed at me for thinking it was up by the university. I defended myself by noting I’ve never been here before, but my mom corrected me by reminding me that I was born here. Point, mom, I guess, but I didn’t have Google Maps on my phone in 1973—I think I was still using the horrid iPhone map app at that point.
So here I am, at the place of my birth, hanging with my immediate family, and things are cruising. I just asked my mom if she wanted to find the room where I was delivered—C-sectioned—and we could maybe reenact it all. My mom could lie on a table and I could hide under the table and one of my siblings could put on scrubs and pretend to make an incision and I could jump up from under the table and scream and kick until someone slapped me. Maybe we’d tie a chord from me to my mom and someone could cut it, but then again, who would give us scissors? This is a hospital. In any case, it’d be a fun way to pass the time until my sister wakes up.
Here in the waiting room, I got to read from Michael Gerhard Martin’s collection Easiest if I Had a Gun, put out by Alleyway Books, a division of Braddock Avenue Books. This was the first of Martin’s work I’ve read, which is cool, as finding new authors is one of those main objectives of Story366. And like the drama of my emergence, it was a fantastic way to pass some time.
The characters in Martin’s stories—I’ve read four of them now—seem to be pretty realistic folks, though they’re folks living on the fringe. Martin’s stories are voice-driven, told in first-person present by characters who have a beef and have no trouble expressing it; some of the stories border on monologues as much as narratives. In “The Strange Ways People Are,” we get a guy taking care of his cranky and dying father. In “Ilka, Ilse, Kostas and Pie,” a bitter restaurateur bemoans a lack of customers. Life’s a bitch, and often, Martin’s characters indeed wonder if things wouldn’t be easier if they just had a gun.
Today I’m writing about the collection’s lead story, “Shit Weasel Is Late for Class.” This is the story of Josh Geringer, a kid who is the target of merciless bullying at his private Catholic high school. Josh is smart, nerdy, fat, and a know-it-all, pure Oscar de León, minus the Dominican angle that Díaz’s protagonist has bearing down on him. A couple of guys in particular, Billy Moyer and Brian McVey, give Josh absolute hell, beating on him, messing with his shit, humiliating him in front of girls, as often as they can. Like in Oscar Wao, Josh’s voice is matter-of-fact (though in first person present instead of third past), and as horrible as some of this stuff is, it’s kind of funny to see him think through a plan to ask a girl out, the one girl who has shown him a scrap of kindness. Josh is a likable kid, despite his problems, and you get the idea that he’s going to be okay, that he’s going to rise above the nut-flicks and titty-twisters.
Things get worse, however, as Josh starts thinking that maybe things would be easiest if he had a gun. This evolution is gradual, as he starts by dreaming of ninja throwing stars, then picking up a small knife at a flea market, then actually stealing his grandfather’s old Colt, cleaning it, buying the bullets (Walmart!), and taking it to school. All of a sudden, “Shit Weasel Is Late for Class” isn’t as funny, especially when Josh goes back and forth in his plans, one minute thinking of using his knife to slit his wrists, then next picturing a mass shooting, how big of a hero he’d be if he shot these bullies, ridding the school of their nuisance, once and for all.
When Josh brings the gun to school, the story goes in some pretty unexpected directions, nothing that I pictured. That’s another of Martin’s strengths, to not take the most obvious route. All of his stories, featuring these fringe characters, could easily have become predictable. They never do. Instead, he finds the humanity in these poor souls, while at the same time, finding a way to make his stories fresh and exciting. He is truly the voice of people who think guns would solve their problems, and that, I’m guessing, is a larger part of the population than I’d like to think.
Still haven’t been able to talk my mom into the birth play, even after offering her top billing on the program and on the YouTube credit scroll. Another one of my sisters has offered to take the part, but really, with Mom sitting right here, it would be weird, would seem disingenuous; since I’m a method actor, that just won’t do. At least I got to read Michael Gerhard Martin’s book while I was here. Helped me get into character, anyway.