June 20, 2016: “The Des Moines Kabuki Dinner Theater” by David S. Atkinson

Happy first day of summer, Story366! Today was the longest day, but I didn’t notice what time the sun went down—I usually do that, as I adore longer days, more daylight—because I was at Wrigley Field, pouring beer, my mind elsewhere. Here in Chicago, it doesn’t stay light quite as late as it does in Missouri, being further east and all, but I did get a great view of the full moon from Wrigley’s upper deck. Karen tells me that there won’t be a full moon on a solstice again for seventy years, which kind of surprises me. I know zero about astronomy, but I would have guessed it happens at least once every thirty or thirty-one years. But no, that’s just not how everything rotates. Math and science aside, I’m actually more interested in what this kind of setup—full moon, perfectly aligned sun—does to tides and werewolves and prophecies and shit. Seems like someone would have made a disaster movie set today, the wolfman at his peak, maybe his low point. Tsunamis attacking beaches. Maybe the moon crashing into Venus Oh, well. 2086 is just around the corner.

Today I read from David S. Atkinson’s collection, Not Quite So: Stories, out from Literary Wanderlust. I’ve known David for several years, meeting him a couple of times—and I present this as modestly as I can—when he came up to me at an AWP event to have me sign a copy of my book. Since, we’ve simply recognized each other as writers and peers, but it was great to be at AWP this year and see David with Not Quite So, have him sign a copy, and then be able to read from it for this project today.

Atkinson has some pretty great stories packed in this book, many of them shorts or on the shorter side of short stories, so I read a bunch. I really like his titles, firstly, and as you can see, he has fun with them—authors tend to neglect how much work an interesting title can do, but not Atkinson. “Scents of Wonder Rhymes With Orange” is a great story about an orange at a mall that doesn’t obey the laws of physics (maybe because of a full moon on a solstice?!). “The Bricklayer’s Ambiguous Morality” is about … well, it’s absurdly funny and about all kinds of stuff. The story I’m covering today, “The Des Moines Kabuki Dinner Theater,” is a nice relationship story, and I’m good at those, so let’s hit it.

“The Des Moines Kabuki Dinner Theater” chronicles a few days in the lives of Helen (our protagonist) and her husband Renaldo. This couple seems to love each other very much, have a nice life together, and even share cooking duties, alternating nights with who cooks, the other always doing the dishes. One night, Renaldo makes some kind of pigeon delicacy—Atkinson loves the absurd, remember—and when Helen goes to do the dishes, she finds a note taped to the bottom of Renaldo’s plate. The note is from Renaldo to the pigeon, thanking it for being so delicious, lamenting how awful Helen’s dinner was the night before. Renaldo is playing some game, Helen figures, or at least making a joke, and after this one incident, she’s a bit hurt, but doesn’t think too much of it. Not enough to mention it to Renaldo.

It happens again, however, two nights later when Renaldo writes a note to his suckling lamb, ripping on Helen for some bad spaghetti. Helen is more hurt, but she’s also getting pissed. What the fuck is going on? She and Renaldo interact all day and he never brings up her cooking, is critical, or acts like an adult and has a conversation at all. He just plays this game. It reminds me of an incident with an intern at Mid-American Review. I’d heated something in the office microwave and didn’t put a paper towel over it, nor did I bother to clean up the subsequent splatter. Later on, this intern guy went in to use the microwave—it was in the office next to mine—and started yelling about who had made a mess of the microwave (he knew it was me), but instead of saying something, or just cleaning it up (he was a intern, after all), he wrote this elaborate note about how it was courteous to use a paper towel or clean up, blah blah blah. I saw it the next day, and when I ran into that intern again, I threw the crumbled note at him and was like, “What the fuck is this? What’s with this note? Why in a million years would you write a note and leave it for me instead of just mentioning it to me when I was sitting right there in my office?” Basically, I wasn’t into these games. Is this how this guy handled things in his life, with snarky little notes? Who fucking does that?

Anyway, that’s what Renaldo’s playing at here. With me, it was some intern. With Renaldo, it’s Helen, his longtime beloved wife. Why now? Why this game? That’s what really bugs Helen—she’s actually forgotten about his rudeness, the fact he’s ripping on her cooking and not pulling any punches. What’s with the game?

The next night, Helen’s night to cook, she bakes a ham, which turns out dry, and this time Renaldo writes a note to it, the first time he’s addressed one of her dishes. After they eat, Helen finds the note, and then she … you’ll have to read the story, as I’ve already said too much.

David S. Atkinson writes great little stories, full of unique characters, wonderfully absurd premises, and perfect execution. I really like the stories in Not Quite So, and I recommend you check it out.

David S. Atkinson