June 23: “Red Velvet Couch” by Erin K. Parker

Hello, Story366! Great to be blogging at you today. As of now, I’m home in Missouri after a long travel day, the fam and I returning from a week in Chicago. Knowing I would have to read and write for Story366 today, Karen offered to read a story or two from today’s book as I drove. I am a horrible passenger, getting carsick just sitting there. Reading while I’m driving in a car? Forget it. It’s instant dizziness and nausea and I’ll throw up by the end of the first paragraph. I’m probably not cut out for that astronaut training you see on TV and in the movies, but then again, as those guys are spinning around and diving to the ground at ridiculous speeds, none of them are reading short stories. So maybe there’s still hope I’ll make it to space yet.

Karen’s offer—which I declined, as I knew we’d be home by eight, plenty of time to read and write—made me think of a FB post I put up a couple of summers ago, the post that got the most attention of any post I’d ever put up. That summer, I had a grad student taking an independent study with me as she lived and taught high school three hours away and couldn’t take any advanced workshops, which are only offered in the fall and spring. This student was on the ball, and a week before we were supposed to start, she asked me what books she’d need to get for the semester, as she’d want to order them on tape, as she had a four three-hour commutes a week (two trips, back and forth) and would just do the “reading” that way. Immediately, I wondered: Does that count as reading, listening to the books on tape?

Part of the point was moot, because we were using Moon City Review, which is not released as an audio version, but her other books were. I wasn’t necessarily saying that listening to these books didn’t count—I was generally curious as to the nature of listening to audio books, and as a college professor, if this was enough to qualify as having done the assignment. Of course, a lot of this depended on how she was able to perform in discussions and assignments relating to the work, but it got me thinking on the topic overall, outside this independent study: Does listening to a book count as reading the book?

As noted, I posed the question to FB and saw the responses explode. Some people took the old school route and declared this to be completely unsatisfactory, while others more or less attacked me for being closed-minded, some reminding me that different people learn in different ways, and it wasn’t my job to care how they learned, just that they did (which was my point to begin with); a few people even accused me of violating ADA regulations, claiming that some students are physically unable to read books and listening to them is the only way they can participate in our part of the world. I assured everyone that this student was not blind or otherwise disabled, just trying to put her twelve hours a week to good use. And in full disclosure, I had a long conversation with the student before I put the question up on FB, told her I was going to do it, and friended her so she could see the entire thing, even participate (which she chose not to). Really, the question wasn’t about her any more, it was more general, as in, if you were at a party, and people were talking about the books they’d read, and they said, “I read The Corrections,” and you’d listened to it at the gym on your iPod, would you be able to honestly say, “Yeah, I read The Corrections, too.” It was a good discussion, garnering a wide variety of responses, and if you’re reading this, I’ll encourage you to reply in the Comments section to let me know what you think about audio books.

None of this mattered today as we traveled down I-55 and I-44 as we never got around to having Karen read me a story (by the way, I would have surely counted). Instead, I came home and read from The Secret & the Sacred by Erin K. Parker, a new book from Unknown Press. I got a copy of this book at AWP, the last of those books I picked up there that I haven’t covered here yet (if you recall, I did a whole week of AWP finds right when I got home). The Secret & the Sacred is a relatively short book of stories, running only 127 pages, utilizing a 14-point font and large margins. None of the stories are very long, either, and I ended up reading about half the book before stopping so I could write.

Today I’ll focus on the lead story, “Red Velvet Couch,” as it’s the longest story and most complex, structurewise, in the book, and maybe the best representation of what Parker does of any story I’ve read. The story starts with its protagonist, an unnamed young woman, leaving home in 1988 to move to San Francisco. All she takes with her are crates of records, her clothes, and a beater car. The car is so ready to break down, she’s memorized where the call boxes are on her way to work so she’ll know where to walk when it inevitably fails her. She’s found a job working as a server at a diner, and as long as that car holds up, she can make it, month to month, on what she makes.

Like all people trying to find their way in the city, our hero eventually needs help, and that help comes in the form of furniture. Enter the titular couch, a nearly new gift given to her by a coworker at the diner, Victor, who says he just wants a new look. Victor tells her how he remembers being on his own for the first time, and our protagonist not only has her first piece of furniture—she’s been sitting on the record crates—but also her first friend.

An accident one night after work reveals things about Victor that we didn’t know before, an incident that leads to the two coworkers becoming even closer, sharing some two-day-old pie and their secrets. I won’t reveal what happens, what Victor tells her, but Parker does a nice job in depicting a tender human moment, of revealing some desperate people as more than just desperate. That’s a theme that can be found throughout The Secret & the Sacred, humans in dire straits, their true character revealed. Parker’s stories aren’t overly complex, structurally or thematically, but they ring true, and sometimes straightforward can be as effective as anything.

So, this is Erin K. Parker’s day on Story366, and I enjoyed reading her stories. But I’m also curious about this audio book thing, see if there’s anything else I can get out of a discussion, anything you all would like to add.

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