July 31: “Everything You Can Remember in Thirty Seconds Is Yours to Keep” by Peter Ho Davies

It’s the last day of July, Story366! Karen is on her retreat, though we made a play date of sorts, when I would bring the boys to the hotel, use their swimming pool for a couple of hours, then leave so she could resume her genius. All three of us had some trouble getting going this morning, but by noon, I was getting them in their suits, packing clothes for after, looking forward to seeing Karen.

As I slipped on my suit, I heard the pitter patter. I looked outside, at noon, and saw black skies, accompanied by a torrential downpour.

Wait, I thought. Did Karen say to bring sunscreen because it was an outdoor pool?

She did.

So me and the boys are hanging at the homestead, decked out in our finest swimming attire, waiting for the rain to pass. Kind of absurd, really, as if we were at some seaside resort where the only thing to do was go to the beach, a rainstorm ruining our vacation. We’re at home, however: We can do whatever we want. While are we sulking and staring out the window like sad sacks?

The older boy jumped right into video games while the younger boy checks for sun every 3.87 seconds. I’m using this time to write about Peter Ho Davies’ story “Everything You Can Remember in Thirty Seconds Is Yours to Keep,” from his second collection, Equal Love, out from Mariner Books. I read a few stories from this collection—I’d read several years ago, as well, when I first got the book—and am really glad to revisit Davies’ work. Davies had a story in Mid-American Review when I was the fiction editor, a story called “The Widow” that I was so thrilled to have. I’d loved his debut collection/book, The Ugliest House in the World, so it was a great honor to get a story from this up-and-coming talent. We brought him in a couple of years later for our Winter Wheat festival, had him read at the theatre at The Toledo Museum of Art, right when they’d scored a traveling exhibit of original Start Wars costumes that shared the bill with some sort of Joseph Campbell hero’s journey theme. Davies was very enthusiastic about walking through the exhibit—apparently, kids in Wales liked Star Wars, too—so we delayed something or another so we could do the exhibit. I’m pretty sure Denise Duhamel was there, too, as she was the featured poet that weekend. It’s a weird evening I’ll never forget, walking around a museum with these two writers—and Karen—checking out just how skinny Harrison Ford had to be to fit into those pants, that vest, and just how crazy-sexy Princess Leia’s slave bikini was, even more so up close.

Anyway, that was like fifteen years ago, but today I’ve focused on “Everything You Can Remember in Thirty Seconds Is Yours to Keep,” the title of which I’ve just copied so I don’t have to retype it five more times . Oh, and it’s also now one of my favorite Peter Ho Davies stories of all-time, and I’m kicking myself for letting it go this long.

“Everything You Can Remember in Thirty Seconds Is Yours to Keep” is about this twenty-something unnamed woman who’s lost her baby to social services. How’s she do that? Davies explains it, and it’s awful: She and her husband Billy were feckless drug addicts and she got pregnant, but she (but not he) went cold turkey off drugs while the baby, Luke, was in her womb. Luke was born, and as soon as the couple got home from the hospital, Billy suggested they get something to celebrate. Since she’d been so pumped with drugs in the hospital, anyway, our hero agreed and they—now with a week-old (or less) baby in tow—got messed up. The next morning, when the baby started crying, Billy took charge, soothed little Luke, which included blowing some pot smoke in his face. The pot worked—to make him stop crying—and these two druggies thought they had come across the best parenting tip since Dr. Spock.

Then Luke didn’t wake up. They took him to the ER, he turned out to be fine, but social services came and took the baby away.

That’s the backstory (which I put in past tense—is that what I’ve been doing for backstory all year?). The frontstory sees the two trying to get Luke back. Sadly, when they return from the hearing, Billy’s first instinct is to go out and score. Things don’t look good. Then our protagonist remembers she has a mom, a mom she hasn’t seen in years and years, not even when her dad died, which she found out via a letter sent to a P.O. Box. Despite all her drugging and her splitting town, Moms (as our hero calls her) sends a check once in a while to help out. This makes our couple drive down to Texas (from Eugene, Oregon) to pick her up, bring her back, help them get into shape so they can get Luke back.

Billy goes out and runs an errand while our hero confronts her mom. Moms is surprisingly open to the idea of moving to Oregon for while, surprisingly not mad at a daughter who started hardcore drugs in high school then disappeared for nearly a decade. Moms lives in a retirement community—she was forty when she gave birth—but is ready to leave at a moment’s notice. While Moms is packing her things, Billy calls, says he’s been busted for selling dope—he’s been gone for like a half an hour—and our hero makes a decision: She tells Billy she’ll be right there, but just gets in the car with Moms and heads to Oregon. She knows what this conviction, trafficking across state lines, will do to their chances with Luke, and convinces her mom that Billy never existed.

Things back in Eugene go well. Moms cleans the hell out of the apartment, gets it so shiny, the case worker, Carrie, is impressed. Soon, weekly inspections turn into weekly visitations with Luke, and eventually, there’s talk of Luke returning home. Billy stops by once in the meantime, but Moms refuses to let him in and starts yelling, “Rape!” at the top of her lungs to get him to leave. Billy runs off, taking the car with him, but never returns.

I won’t reveal much more, as there’s one more major twist that seriously affects the outcome of the story. I love the situations that Davies puts these unscrupulous characters into, but I also love the characterization, the voice, the unreliability. Sure, our protagonist is pretty awful, not only choosing a life of drugs, but choosing them for her four-day-old child. And yes, she’s the last person who should have a baby. There’s something more, though, something that makes her three-dimensional, makes her make the right decisions when she has to. She kicked drugs when she got pregnant. She cut and run on Billy when his arrest would mean never seeing her kid again. She took advantage of her mother’s graces when she didn’t deserve the time of day. Davies has created this wonderfully complex human, so easy to hate, but so admirable in her own way, a quick decision-maker and clever problem-solver. I love this character, one of the most outstanding and standing-out protagonists I’ve read all year.

Still raining out. Oh well. Story366 is done for the day and if it does clear, I can swim, too, instead of hiding up in the room while Karen carries the load for me. I think I’ll bring her Equal Love, make her read today’s story. It’s a great story of motherhood, that story I was looking for on Mother’s Day, the one I would never have found without reading all my books on my pile (though Aurelie Shaheen’s story, “Jack Kerouac Is Pregnant,” was also awesome—gotta love that title!). Great story today, by a great author. Story366 out.

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July 30: “The Bolero of Andi Rowe” by Toni Margarita Plummer

It’s Saturday, Story366, and Karen is on a writing retreat. That means it’s me and the boys going solo for four days, and so far, so good. Before Karen left, I managed to trim the hedges in the back yard, which doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it’s been two years since I’ve done that. This is big because A) they were longer and harder to sculpt than usual (I went with the traditional stick-of-butter pattern), and B) the last time I completed this task, I almost cut off two of my fingers. I’d literally been finished, was just walking around, clipping here and there, trying to perfect, and I bent over to get to a part underneath the bushes, reaching below with the trimmer in one hand. I got the part I was aiming for, straightened up, and grabbed for the handle part with my left hand, but instead grabbed the blades—these were electric trimmers. Karen rushed me to the hospital, I got thirteen stitches in my middle finger and seven in my ring finger and two years later, I still have the scars. The wound on my middle finger is deeper and hurts sometimes—when it’s overcast especially—though it’s cool because now my fingerprints are altered and I’m trying to figure out how I can use that to my advantage. I’d take suggestions in the Comments section.

Today, I made it through the task, this time wearing gloves, long sleeves, and a suit of armor I found at the flea market, and the Infinity Gauntlet, just in case. Karen left right after—I thought it best to do this while she was home—and now me and the boys are chilling. I went on a retreat a few weeks ago and did an enormous amount of writing, and hopefully, Karen has a good experience as well.

My fingers intact, I read some stories from Toni Margarita Plummer’s collection The Bolero of Andi Rowe, out from Curbstone Books, and enjoyed them all. I rushed right into the title story, which is in the middle of the book, and noticed that the mention of Andi Rowe was in backstory and sort of out of nowhere. I read the next story, “All the Sex Is West,” and again, Andi Rowe showed up, this time as the best friend of the protagonist. It was time to do some investigating, so being the master detective that I am, I read the description on the back cover. In the first sentence, it’s revealed that this is a collection of interrelated stories about Andi Rowe, about people she knows who live in and around LA. That mystery solved, I read the opening piece, “Yard Work,” which features Andi Rowe as its protagonist, just to meet the lady herself. Still, I’ve decided to write on “The Bolero of Andi Rowe,” as I like title stories and I might like it best of the three, too.

“The Bolero of Andi Rowe” is about Pete, a guy who is driving along in Whittier (the part of LA where Whittier College is, where Nixon went to school, where I read once back in 2009) and spots his ex-girlfriend, Beth, stumbling around drunk. Beth looks to be in awful shape, so Pete stops to help her, much to Beth’s dismay. Beth begins to beat on him something fierce.

This actually comes to us in backstory, though, on the second page, as Plummer starts a bit ahead of that, with the line “The mariachis arrived just in time.” A couple of guys from a band have pulled up to play in a nearby club and stop to help Pete out. Pete, who played in a mariachi band in college and wrote songs and stuff, develops an immediate affinity with these guys, who not only help him coral Beth, but help him take her home safely and into bed, too. Pete and the guys talk more, it’s revealed just how much they have in common, and then they part ways.

More or less, this is the entire plot of “The Bolero of Andi Rowe,” though there’s a lot of story left. Some of the remaining text is backstory, mainly the aforementioned backstory with Andi Rowe, Pete remembering a steamy evening at a drive-in with her years earlier, an encounter enabled by a Pete-penned bolero playing on his car radio. There’s a lot of character-building, though, too, as we find out who Pete is, meet the guy who went out of his way to help someone who hates him. We find out that Pete lives with his uncle because his uncle is divorced and had lived alone and Pete needed a quiet place to study. For what? Pete is done with college and is supposed to be studying for his MCATs. He’d been failing at this, and when his mom got on him, he blamed the noisy household. Enter the end of Tío’s private bachelor pad.

The move to Tío’s is important because Tío is a kindred spirit with Pete, an artist, a misanthrope, and a free thinker. Everyone wants Pete to become a doctor, and in a way, so does Pete. But his uncle and his Bohemian lifestyle inspire Pete, as did the run-in with Beth, which got him thinking about his music, his songwriting, and his encounter with Andi Rowe. That’s enough to inspire a change in Pete, to get him following his heart.

“The Bolero of Andi Rowe” isn’t really about Andi Rowe, but in the end, is about inspiration, how art comes about. The three stories I’ve read in Toni Maragarita Plummer’s collection are all character-driven, with interesting plots on the periphery, but definitely about people making choices, learning about life, coming into their own. This was my introduction to Plummer’s work and it was a great introduction. I enjoyed all of the stories, meeting all of these characters, reading the prose that chronicles their lives. I highly recommend.

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July 29: “Forty” by Joshua Barkan

Happy Friday, Story366! Today has been somewhat of an odd Friday, actually, as a lot of things happened that don’t usually happen. I started the day by meeting the department’s new computer guy at my office, at 8:30, to install my four-year upgrade computer. I had a lot of files on my desktop, so the transfer took over two hours; in the middle of that, I took the younger boy to daycare, then came back and typed my password in like thirty times. Then I had to run because I had a date to take Karen and the older boy to see Ghostbusters, which I enjoyed. Immediately after, we had to pick up the younger boy from daycare. Then I came home and tried to watch the end of the Cub game, the feed of which hasn’t been working on my computers at home, so I spent nearly two hours talking to MLB.com techies (which, by the way, didn’t work). We went to dinner—we realized that none of us had eaten anything all day except candy at the movies. We ate at a restaurant at the mall, HuHot, a Mongolian stir-fry joint, then decided to take a stroll through the mall. Inside, there’s this quad of coin-operated kiddie rides, plastic cars and animals that kids sit on that shake for two minutes if you put in quarters. Our son rode two of them and we were ready to move on, but my son was not. I had to carry him, kicking and screaming, through the mall, until we were clear. One of the things that Karen said to soothe him, as we passed the Victoria’s Secret, was, “Hey, let’s go buy a bunch of bras!” just to be silly. Our son switched from crying about the rides to screaming, “I want to go buy a bunch of bras!” We had to leave the mall, me carrying him out over my shoulder, him screaming about buying bras. All of a sudden, it’s nine o’clock and I haven’t posted on Story366 yet.

In all, I spent nearly five hours with computer tech people today. “Forty,” the second story I read from Joshua Barkan’s collection Before Hiroshima: The Confession of Murayama Kazuo, out from The Toby Press, is about an office computer techie. It seems appropriate that I write about “Forty” today, but to note, I also read “Suspended,” which I liked, and a good deal of “Before Hiroshima,” the title novella, an epistolary, but that’s sixty-five pages long and it’s late and I’ve got to get this posted.

The nameless protagonist of “Forty” is flying to Africa to visit his brother Jacob, even though there’s three feet of snow on the runway in Boston. Why’s he going under such circumstances? He’s freaking out. His girlfriend has left him, their father has died, their mother right before that, and his job sucks. On top of that, he’s just turned forty. Barkan, via his hero, tells Jacob a couple of amusing anecdotes, including one about a woman who calls in a broken fax machine; when no damage can be found, he has the woman demonstrate how she tries to fax, which involves her dragging pieces of paper across her monitor. The brothers have a good laugh over these stories, enjoy a beer, but in the end, Mr. Middle-Age Crisis is still in Uganda and has no one to go home to.

In the middle of the night—in Africa—our hero decides to follow a strange, dark creature from his room out into the jungle. He’s not sure what it is, but since he’s in I’ve-got-nothing-to-lose mode, he tracks it out into the savannah, which at first, produces some ripe fruits: He’s stumbled upon a regular safari bonanza, a clearing filled with animals he’s seen in zoos, the kind that Americans travel to Africa to see, some of which he can’t even name. It’s glorious, zebras hopping here, elephants stomping there. Everything is great, making him forget his troubles, great until all the animals suddenly stop, look around, then start to run.

Maybe you’ve already figured out what happens next, and maybe you’re right, but whatever you’re guessing, it’s at most the short of it. Barkan takes his hero’s personal self-doubt and laissez-faire to its extreme, and the results are interesting, surprising, and satisfying, making “Forty” a memorable sotry.

I haven’t run into Joshua Barkan’s work before, nor I have I read anything on The Toby Press. I liked reading his stories. His style is easy and his characters have universal motivations. I enjoyed Before Hiroshima and hope to read more. A solid discovery.

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July 28: “Foes” by Lorrie Moore

What’s up, Story366? I’m writing you with an adversarial mindset tonight. I’m watching the Cubs-Sox game as I type this, the Cubs up 2-1 (update: they went on to win 3-1), and am also monitoring the Democratic National Convention (update: I just saw Hillary kill it with her closing speech). I’m a homer, through and through, and two of my favorite things to root for—the Cubs and lefties—are making a good show of it tonight. It’s a long road for both, but hopefully, in early November, both will turn my way. For now, it’s time to fight the good fight.

“Foes” by Lorrie Moore, from her collection Bark (Knopf), is the perfect story to write on tonight. As the title suggests, the story is about opposing forces, these forces very similar to the ones squaring off in this year’s election. “Foes” was published in The Guardian in 2008, though, so the the battle at hand is the Obama vs. McCain election, an event that Moore tackles uniquely and adeptly.

I should pause to let you know that I’m a pretty huge Lorrie Moore fan, as I’ve pretty much everything she’s written, the story collections a couple of times over, and list some of those stories as some of the best ever written. She’s one of those living writers that has a whole slew of anthologized pieces, be it the classroom staple “How to Become a Writer,” to stories like “Terrific Mother,” “You’re Ugly, Too,” and “People Like That Are the Only People Here.” I teach at least one of these stories in every class every semester, as I think Moore is one of those writers, like Carver, like Boyle, like Munro, who has to be read, no matter how many stories they write, no matter how many writers come after, no matter what class it is.

I also think that Moore would be/is the hardest writer to imitate. I just mentioned Carver, and while me or anyone else would pale in comparison to his stories—the minimal Lish edits or his later work—you could attempt one of those Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?-type pieces and people would know what you were trying to do. Moore, however, with her wit, her ear for dialogue, her quiet absurdity, story after story, would be practically impossible. Maybe you’d be funny. Maybe you’d script some good back-and-forth. And maybe you’d place a tale in a realistic, yet ironically ridiculous setting. But could you do all three, and do it as well as Moore, without straight-up stealing from her? I’d doubt you if you’re saying yes.

Back to “Foes.” “Foes” is about Bake McKurty (but not Bake McBride), a writer who has to go to a fundraising dinner—for a literary magazine!—with his wife, Suzy. Bake is a biographer, a pretty famous one, and he and Suzy need to bump elbows with rich, non-artist types, people who are used to being asked for money by people who are not used to asking for it. Suzy makes Bake go, anyway, as that’s what Suzy’s job is (at least in this story): to keep Bake on task.

The dining room at the fundraiser has big circular tables, and Bake and Suzy sit. Immediately Suzy engages a sculptor and his wife on her side, while an attractive Asian woman named Linda sits next to Bake. Bake is suddenly interested in the event—he’s always had a thing for Asian women—so for the length of the meal, he’s willing to sit next to Linda, be charmed by her, and maybe, just maybe, ask her for a donation. Or not.

The story turns, however, when Linda’s attractiveness starts to wear thin: Politically, she couldn’t be further from Bake’s comfort zone. Linda is a self-declared lobbyist for some evil cause—that’s how she introduces herself. Among other things, she’s also critical of the African American presidential candidate, Bracko (which is, oddly, how Moore “disguises” Obama), eventually stretching to straight-up, unabashed racism. Bake looks to Suzy for help, and Suzy, busy with her sculptor, ushers him back, instructs him to ask for the cash (kind of like Hillary’s mom made a bowed Hillary face that bully all those years ago). Bake heads back in, but Linda’s appeal—not to mention some of her original charms—disintegrates completely, granting Bake an epiphany.

Despite all this, the story’s not really about the fundraiser, whether or not Bake scores that donation (and really, what kind of lit mag has a deep-pockets fundraiser dinner in Washington, D.C.?). It’s about Bake and Suzy, about how they interact, this sixty-something couple thrust into this odd situation, interacting with each other, communicating with each other. It’s also bout Bake dealing with Bake, with his self interests, his self doubts, and finally, his self worth. All of it, of course, is delivered with Moore’s sense of humor, her skill, her exactness. I loved Bake and Suzy by the end of this story, wanted to sit next to them at the dinner, wanted to have drinks with them, share a cab back to Georgetown, all just to hear them talk, to hear them speak Moore’s words.

There’s few writers whose work I admire, enjoy, or respect as Lorrie Moore’s, and the stories I’ve read for today in Bark are no exception. She is, without hesitation, one of the true geniuses we have writing fiction today, or at any time. I’m honored to include her here. Wouldn’t have left her off for the world.

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July 27: “Parable of the Fever” by Paul Maliszewski

Say hey, Story366! Last night, I wrote a really long pre-story intro leading into my breakdown of Elizabeth McCracken’s story. Tonight, I could go into a variety of topics—the Cubs’ acquisition of Aroldis Chapman comes to mind—but I think I’d like to get right to the story tonight, relate it to myself a bit after, as that’s what I’m feeling tonight in Story366 land.

Paul Maliszewski’s Prayer and Parable, from Fence Books, is a collection of stories that alternates between prayers and parables, presenting about a dozen of each. These pieces, despite have the monikers of “prayer” and “parable,” are, however, straight-up short stories. They don’t use archaic diction like Thou shalt not or anything like that, invoking some Latin chant as they move along, nor do they use line breaks or rhyme. From what I’ve read of Maliszewski’s work, both here in this book and in lit journals over the years, he employs a very particular style. The characters in these stories don’t have names, while the settings, for the most part, are people’s homes, their workplaces, all of them as nameless, presented without specificity or detail. There are no car chases or explosions, no clocks to keep the stories moving, no world-shifting events. Maliszewski focuses his stories on small moments, crucial in the long run, crucial to the philosophies of his characters, but small in scope, in movement, in physical action. The characters are often couples working through particular issues, and as so many of the stories focus on these nameless couples, they very well might be the same couple. Better yet, every couple. That’s what Maliszewski seems to be going for, the seemingly little moments that affect us all, that we all face, the ones that determine who we are.

I’d read a bunch of Maliszewski’s prayers before and published a couple in Mid-American Review, one of which made the cut here (Maliszewski wrote and published a ton of these in lit mags and simply didn’t have room for all of them in a collection). Somehow, I’d never read any of the parables before, so today I’ll focus on the first in the book, “Parable of the Fever.”

“Parable of the Fever” features this guy whose live-in girlfriend has tremendously awful fever, one that won’t go away. They try everything they can, seek advice from everyone they know, using both sound medical advice and the most far-fetched home remedies, none of which make the fever break. The first third of the story is taken up by these attempts, which allows Maliszewski to do some listing, to flex some creative skills.

The story then shifts to the guy’s ego, which is what the story’s really about. The plot concerns the fever, yeah, but this is about this guy, a man who is trying to be the good guy, trying to be the guy who solves the problem. He wants his girlfriend’s fever to go away—of course he does—but even more so, he wants what he’s doing to work, for it to be him who does it, for this problem to go away. The fever becomes emblematic, almost, of his potency as the traditional man in the relationship, and when he fails, his failure consumes him. Yeah, it’s disturbing when a fever won’t go down—his girlfriend could have stroke, experience brain damage, etc.—but its about him, what he’s able to do and not able to do.

The story ends with a trip to the grocery store where the guy has a confrontation with a third party. I’ll not go any further, but in a book of quiet, simple stories, this is an interesting and fitting way to end. It’s just what someone would do in a situation like this, try to pick something up when he’s out of it, let his stress from his home life affect his mood and behavior. Again, this is what Maliszewski’s stories achieve, take the paths of the everyday to make their points. I think this story, and all of them that I’ve read, are insightful, powerful, real strokes of mastery.

I chose “Parable of the Fever” to write on tonight because I can relate. Where the protagonist of this story finds himself—wanting to be the functional, successful partner—is a place I’ve been before. I think most people find themselves there, not only wanting to solve the problem, but wanting to be the one who solves it, or even more so, not be the one who failed at solving it. I’ve been a husband and father for nearly ten years and try to do my best every day, but sometimes, I fail. What hurts is not only the failing, but the knowledge of the failing, the recognition of it. So I relate here, and I’m sure when I read every story in Prayer and Parable, I’ll identify myself in quite a few of these. That’s where Paul Maliszewski really succeeds. I’m never going to be shot by the Misfit on the back roads of Tennessee or watch my heroin-addicted brother play the blues at some night club; I won’t try to talk my lover into an abortion at the foothills of Mt. Kilimanjaro, nor will I … you get the picture. But I have lived a lot of these stories, which is why I love this book, this project, so much.

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July 26: “Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry” by Elizabeth McCracken

Hello, Story366! It’s Tuesday, meaning I’ve been back from Cub Scout camp for three days now, exactly as long as I was at Cub Scout camp, so it’s probably time to move on from that topic after today. My heat rash is gone, the horrendous whatever-bite on my arm has leveled, and I don’t feel like I have ants all over me any more. Any weight I lost from the limited meals, no snacking, drinking lots of water, hiking over five miles a day, and sweating my nads off has come back, my terrible eating habits catching up with me and bringing friends.

Since I’ve been talking Cub Scouts the last several days, I want to end that topic with my thoughts on Scouting in general. As a kid, I was a member of Cub Scouts, going the full way and earning the Arrow of Light (what my son is working on this year), and made it through three years of Boy Scouts, to the First Class rank before my troop disbanded; basically, none of the guys, including me, wanted to take Scouting into high school, which was not a popular thing where I grew up (though it’s much more in fashion here). I didn’t think about Scouting for decades then, aside from some lingering regrets that I didn’t get to Eagle, not until my own son got into first grade and we saw the flier for a sign-up meeting at his school. Since I enjoyed Scouts and my son wasn’t involved in any activities—we’d just moved to Missouri and he absolutely hates sports—I was sold on Cub Scouts as the thing he’d do in his free time and that I’d be his den leader, what I’d do as my community service and bonding time with him.

I think it was Karen who pointed out a moral dilemma, something I hadn’t thought of: Boy Scouts of America forbade both gay Scouts and gay leaders. I’m not gay, and my son was six, so it wasn’t like we were going to have to lie or hope for Don’t ask, Don’t tell. But what about the philosophy behind it? Karen and I decided to look into it.

The anti-gay stance that the BSA took at that time—2012—seemed to be based on both its fear of child molestation cases (which, of course, they were wrongly conflating with being gay) and their roots as a church-based organization, an organization that sees more than half its units sponsored by Baptist churches. On moral ground alone, we should have run screaming; before I thought about any of this, however, I’d already been talking up Scouting and our son seemed very, very interested. Again, he wasn’t interested or involved with anything at that point, was the new kid in school, and hadn’t made a friend yet. We decided to go to the sign-up meeting, meet the folks in charge, and gauge what kind of pack they ran, what the leaders’ stances were. We attended one meeting and met a really nice guy named Todd who just passed out paperwork, then another meeting—at the neighborhood Baptist church that served as the pack’s sponsor—where we met everyone involved. We talked to other parents, we talked to the leaders, and in the end, we were pretty satisfied that these particular people in this particular group were not on board with the anti-gay stances of the BSA. The leaders had also noted that the BSA was working on this issue, were ready to make some changes.

We let our son join. I signed up for den leadership. The four families in our den, including ours, seemed to be liberal, sensible people. My son enjoyed Scouting. At the end of the year, the BSA indeed changed their stance somewhat—you might remember a few high school-aged Scouts being kicked out, just short of Eagle, after coming out—allowing Scouts to be gay, though not leaders. The Baptist church that sponsored us dropped us, dropped Scouting, immediately, but we found a new sponsor at my son’s public elementary school. The school is nestled in the liberal center of Springfield, just off the university, many faculty members in the neighborhood. The issue hasn’t come up again. As our son enters his fifth and final year in Cub Scouts, he’ll have to decide if he wants to move on to Boy Scouts in the spring. We’re tuned in, our eyes and ears open.

That’s probably the longest pre-story I’ve included so far on Story366, and maybe the most personal, but as I’ve been bandying the Cub Scout flag about here these past few days, I wanted my stance on this issue—which is extremely important to me—to be known.

I’ve read Elizabeth McCracken stories for a long time. I never had a collection of hers, though, but wanted to include her in this project, so I tracked down a copy of Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry, out from Random House, which has a few stories by McCracken in it that I’ve read before. I glanced over the titles and read into the pieces to see if I could remember any—I could—then headed straight to the title story, which I hadn’t read, and settled in. I enjoyed “Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry” very much and will focus on it today.

“Here’s Your Hat What’s You’re Hurry” is about Aunt Helen Beck, an eccentric woman who travels about, from distant relative to distant relative, putting her feet up in the spare room for as long as the family will let her. When they’re tired of her, she moves on to the next third cousin, great nephew, or whathaveyou. In this story, Aunt Helen Beck comes to visit/stay with her nephew, Ford, whose grandfather is her uncle. Ford remembers his Aunt Helen from years before, or at least he thinks he does, but he’s a kind, family-centered man, and when he finds out from his cousin Abbie that their aunt needs a place to stay, he feels it’s his duty to take his turn.

Aunt Helen Beck heads to Ford’s house, and on the way, McCracken really focuses the narrative on building her character. I mentioned before that she is an eccentric person, and the author takes several pages to make this come to life. Aunt Helen Beck—who is referred to as “Aunt Helen Beck” throughout the story—has her quirks, to be modest. One practice she’s known for is writing long letters to long-dead relatives, which she dictates to the family members with whom she’s staying. She carries a coin purse, too, with exactly two pennies in it, which she never spends, a gift from her brother George just before he died at seven years old. Aunt Helen Beck is also abrasive with everyone she meets. She asks why Ford’s son, Mercury, is named Mercury, and when Ford tells her that his wife, Chris, likes planets, Aunt Helen Beck replies, “I like vegetables, but I wouldn’t name my kid Rutabaga.” She then rips on Mercury for his haircut, which makes his gender hard to determine. Aunt Helen Beck takes no prisoners, leaves nothing on the table.

Aunt Helen Beck reminds me a bit of the grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” though she makes herself less a burden. When Aunt Helen Beck stays with family, she makes herself useful, making it hard for anyone to want her to leave. She cooks. She cleans. She watches children. It’s pretty clear, after a while, that Aunt Helen Beck isn’t just visiting: She has no place to go. Once, when Chris walks into the kitchen, she fakes a phone call that reveals this fact, gaining Chris’ sympathy. At this point, it’s becoming clear that Aunt Helen Beck, as big of a force as she is, is also vulnerable, more than just a whirlwind.

There’s still a lot of story left at this point, including two pretty large twists. I won’t reveal them—they’re too marvelous and need to be discovered on their own—but I was impressed. McCracken starts off her tale with a long character-building stretch and then turns that human loose in a story, a story I enjoyed as much as any I’ve read this year, with one of the best and most satisfying endings to boot. Get out and read this story.

Elizabeth McCracken is the author of novels and story collections, books spread out over twenty years. I’ve always admired her work and am glad I tracked down Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry, as I got to read this great title story and a few others, too.

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July 25: “The Singing Fish” by Peter Markus

Good day to you, Story366! Today marks another day I’m not at Cub Scout camp, but will continue to complain a little about and report on Cub Scout camp. Residual heat rash can still be found across my back, while that bug bite on my left biceps continues to worry me a little. This morning, I woke up and tried to unzip my bedroom door. So, as long as I’m still living camp, I’m still writing camp.

Because I’m writing about “The Singing Fish” from Peter Markus’ book We Make Mud (from Dzanc), which is about fish, I’ll first talk about fishing with my son at camp. Again, I really don’t want to complain about the experience of camp, as it was a great experience for me as well as my son, but one thing that went wrong was the fishing part. There was one station, one day, where the boys were supposed to fish for an hour, but because of some scheduling confusion, the fifteen-year-old Boy Scout in charge ended our session after about fifteen minutes; because the fifteen minutes included a quick safety lesson, and because my son was last in line to get a pole and bait, we fished for a grand total of five minutes.

Fishing, by the way, has in the past been a large part of my life. Even though I grew up in a specifically urban suburb of Chicago—Calumet City—my family had always fished, taking trips to lakes and rivers further south in Illinois and into Indiana. My dad was the leader of these expeditions, and was often joined by my older brothers, and eventually, me. Sadly, I didn’t get on as many of the father-sons trips as I would have liked before my father died in 1997. My older brothers and I fished a lot in the years after that, our way of grieving, I’d guess, but in the last fifteen years, we’ve more or less stopped. Part of that has to do with our lives becoming busier, me moving to Bowling Green, me becoming a father, but part of me has also started questioning my interest in the barbaric aspects of fishing, pulling these creatures out of the water in the most gruesome (and deceptive) of ways, immediately drowning them in oxygen, gutting them and eating them later. That doesn’t even cover what we do to the bait.

But there we were at Cub Scout camp, fifteen years since I’ve fished. All the other kids were doing it and my son seemed eager to try. I grabbed a pole, hooked a night crawler, and we dropped the line off the dock—literally, the line fell right into the water when I pressed the reel button, the camp rods so old and shitty, we couldn’t even cast.

Anyway, we had five minutes—the guy gave us the five-minute warning as soon as that worm broke the surface—and something happened: My son seemed to really, really like to fish. Helping matters was the clear water off the dock and the short fishing line, putting the wormed hook about a foot deep, clearly visible from above; even better, several small fish rose from the algae and muck to check out the bait, many of them bumping the worm with their snouts, some literally nibbling, the long-assumed phenomenon that had not been verified as real until then, fish taking small, quick bites out of the bait: Nibbling.

All this went down within thirty seconds, and for four and a half more minutes, my son not only got to fish, but he got to watch fishing. I hate to say this, I really do, but I think the kid is hooked.

“The Singing Fish” is about fish, if you haven’t guessed, so we have one of those rare Story366 posts where my little intro essay is actually related to the story. Okay, maybe the story’s not about fish, as in the fish are the main characters, some kind of anthropomorphized creatures with feelings and dialogue who drive cars and stuff. Fish do play a pretty vital role in the story, however, and that’s what I mean when I say it’s about fish.

I should note that “The Singing Fish” seems to be the first story in a novel-in-stories, as I read the first five or six pieces in We Make Mud, none of them longer than three pages, and we seem to be dealing with the same set of characters and circumstances throughout. I only hesitate about all this because A) I haven’t read the whole book (not the Story366 mission), and B) Markus’ book is rather untraditional, so calling it a “novel” might not fit some people’s definition of a novel.

What We Make Mud and “The Singing Fish” do is set up a scenario that includes characters, some limited physical action, and a whole lot of imagery. Then it just goes from there. In “The Singing Fish,” we are introduced to the book’s setting, a dirty little town that has a dirty little river running through it. The narrator/protagonist of the story is a pair of brothers who refer to themselves as “us brothers” throughout, and from this dirty river in their dirty town, they catch fish. The good, meaty parts of the fish, they eat (or so it’s implied), but the other parts, especially the heads, the brothers take those out to the backest part of their back yard and nail them to a telephone pole. It’s not explained why it happens, but that’s what these brothers do to the severed fish tails and fins and heads.

Then something magical happens: The fish heads look at the brothers and start to sing. Their song? Don’t leave. The fish, in song, ask the brothers to never leave the house, the yard with the telephone pole in which they are nailed to with rusty nails. Cool. I like magical realism. I like allegory. I like metaphor. In a three-page story, I wasn’t exactly sure which one “The Singing Fish” is yet—I’ll have to read the rest of the book—but I liked it.

The fishes’ request is challenged when the brothers’ father announces that they have to leave, move out of the house, away from the yard, out of town. This puts us well into the last page of this three-pager, so I’ll not reveal what happens next, but it’s cool and weird and more or less solves the problem that’s been posed. I wasn’t sure what to make of this story as I was reading it, only that I liked reading it, but when I got to this ending, I was even more pleased. The following stories, then, pick up with the brothers, the dad, the dead singing fish heads, slowly moving the narrative forward.

It should be noted, when reading Markus’ work, is that what happens or who’s doing what isn’t necessarily the most important thing to pay attention to. I read Markus’ debut novel, Bob, or Man in Boat, and now I’ve read a hunk of We Make Mud, and see a consistency in his prose, a very unique, stylized syntax that sets him apart from anyone else writing, or at least anyone I’ve read. All of the stories in We Make Mud are single, long paragraphs, all told without conventional dialogue, all told by a very observant and neutral third-person narrator. Most importantly, the narrator is lyrical, the sentences flowing and beautiful, employing an awful lot of repetition. I don’t quote lines much in Story366 (in fact, I’m not sure if I have yet this year), but here’s a sample from the story that can better illustrate what I’m talking about than anything I can come up with on my own:

“When our father told us we were leaving, he menat it, we were leaving for good—this dirty river, this dirty river town. We did not want to leave, my brother and me. We did not want to leave this dirty river, this dirty river town. We did not want to leave behind this town or the river or the river’s dirty river fish. We did not want to leave the fish-headed telephone pole out back in the back in our yard, back behind the wood tool shed where ….”

You get the idea. Each sentence builds a little on the previous, recalling repeated details that are introduced throughout the story. The words “river” and “town” and “fish” must each appear in the story a couple of hundred times in three pages. So, reading Markus’ work is reading something completely different from anything I’ve read. And now you’ve read it, too.

Bob, or Man in Boat came out on Dzanc soon after Elephants did, so Peter Markus and I were pressmates for a while, and I remember reading with him once, back in 2009, in the back patio of some bar in a cozy little neighborhood in Detroit, and after, a lot of people went out to eat and I had chicken and waffles. That’s been my memory of Peter for the last seven years, but now I’ve read from his latest collection and I have a new memory. I really look forward to getting deeper into We Make Mud, to seeing where all this goes, these brothers, this river, this town, these dirty fish heads nailed to a telephone pole in the back yard. I cheated a bit just now and jumped forward to the last story and read the first line. Us brothers and the river made an appearance. Time to figure out what’s on the hundred pages in-between.

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July 24: “More of This World or Maybe Another” by Barb Johnson

Greetings, Story366! Welcome to Sunday night. As noted in yesterday’s post, I returned from Cub Scout camp yesterday and was too tired to relay any interesting anecdotes. There’s a lot I could relay, too, as Scout camp is a really strange place in a lot of ways. There’s weirdness at every turn, especially for the adults, from what we eat, how we have to dress (I’m a den leader, so I have to wear a uniform), and how much we have stand around and watch while our kids have all the fun.

Trumping everything this last week was the excessive heat. I’m not a weatherman, but I actually think that’s the technical term, “excessive heat,” meaning “Get the fuck inside where there’s air conditioning, dumbass.” Unfortunately, when you’re out in the Missouri wilderness, sleeping in a dome tent, the day running from seven a.m. until ten p.m., there aren’t a lot of places to hide from the heat. I give the camp people a lot of credit for canceling some events one of the afternoons when it was 105 on the heat index, opting instead to take the boys inside a classroom for some A.C. and a movie, but that was two hours out of seventy-five. For the most part, we were hot, as in really, really, really hot, and aside from those two hours and a few trips to the air conditioned trading post, we just cooked.

The only thing that kept me and the boy alive, really, was how we drank enough water over three days to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool. I’m not much of a water-drinker—not smart, I know—but at camp, I gobble down water like a fool. I have a 1.5-liter Nalgene canteen on my belt at all times, and  every hour, I filled it, we drank it down, and I refilled it. I got past that point where all the water made my stomach queasy and my head spin and was actually enjoying how much of it I had in my body. Not to get gross, but my urine was clear for the first time since last camp, most likely, and according to what he says, so was the boy’s. Considering how much Diet Pepsi I usually drink, this was no easy task. They don’t give merit badges out for the clearest urine in camp (or to adults ever), but I have to tell you, a couple of times, birds flew into my stream thinking the urine wasn’t even there. That’s how clear my urine got this past week.

Then I came home last night and drank a case of ice cold Diet Pepsi and there went that accomplishment.

For today’s post, I read from Barb Johnson’s collection More of This World or Maybe Another, out from Harper Perennial. I read a couple of stories from the book and liked everything I read, but will focus on the title story, “More of This World and Maybe Another,” as it’s the lead story, it’s pretty striking, and I just like to write about title stories.

“More of This World and Maybe Another” is about Delia, a high school girl in a mostly rural town who attends a dance at her high school. Delia is a smart girl, smart enough to know that she’s stuck in this small town for the time being, even though she longs to get out. On the way to the dance she passes an entire family of rich kids, four boys and four girls, all of whom, through the miracle of being left back, are in high school at the same time. That’s the town in a nutshell, the dumbest people also have the most money and Delia knows it, but she can’t do anything about it. At one point, she wonders if that’s her destiny, to be married to one of them, as in a town like this, that’s often how things go.

Delia has friends, too, but they’re not much brighter than the kids whose randy parents own the refinery. There’s Rita, her best friend, who’s forsaken Delia for boys, boys she plays dumb in front of so they’ll like her. There’s Calvin, who’s been left back once himself, only he’s a nice guy, even though he acts tough in front of his boys; he and Delia might be on a date at this dance, though neither knows for sure. Finally, there’s Chuck, aka Charlene, Calvin’s sister, who seems like the most loyal and sensible of the bunch, whom Delia hangs around with for most of the story.

Johnson really captures the small-town vibe well, depicting the cliques and hierarchies of Delia’s school, of her town, with unique precision. There’s the rich kids (mostly that one family, the Higginbothams), the farmer/rancher kids (who show up at the dance dressed like Gene Autry), and the druggies, Delia and Chuck and Calvin and Chuck’s posse. Johnson makes what could have been a typical teen angst story into something much more, Delia and her plight much more original, much more sympathetic. A bad writer makes her sound like a whiny teen but Johnson turns her into a protagonist, a real hero with fears and faults and judgment beyond her years.

Delia and Chuck eventually leave the dance, Delia getting cold feet with Calvin, who is the best choice for a mate by default, Delia not interested in default. A highlight of the story is the adventure Delia and Chuck go on, the two heading to what’s called the Emerald City. “Emerald City” stands for the refinery, and as legend has it, if someone—say, some bored teens—get inside an empty oil tank and shake up a couple of clackers—those hand-held things people use at football games to make a clacking noise—the reverberating sound inside the tanker will give anyone inside a very unique disorientation, one akin to a fantastic high. Delia and Chuck head to Emerald City, clackers in hand, ready to give it a shot. Like any teenager engaging in activity that might get them high, they seem to be doing it because they’re bored and have nothing to lose, another hallmark of this small town.

I won’t go any further into detail or plot on this story, except nothing that I was guessing ended up happening; “More of This World or Maybe Another” is a really tragic story, though, and not because of anything that happens at the Emerald City. There’s this existential sadness strung throughout as Delia knows what her future likely will be, though she knows she lacks the resources, the will, and the family backing to avoid it. It’s a powerful story of a young person just tryng to figure out who she is while trying to also be a kid, her awareness and ennui stifling her, making her make bad choices. Bad for Delia, that is, but good for fiction.

I’d never read anything by Barb Johnson before today, but am a new fan, her work creative, heartfelt, and edgy all at the same time. More of This World and Maybe Another is a great find, and I hope to delve deeper into it before too long.

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July 23: “Demonology” by Rick Moody

Hello, Story366! Wow, do I have a lot to catch you up on. I came back from Cub Scout camp today, thusly ending Cub Scout Camp Week at Story366, and I really want to relay all kinds of stories about what went down, including the massive, heinous bug bite I found on my arm when I came home, how much water I drank, whether or not I got into a fight with another Cub Scout parent, and what it’s like, in general, to spend four days and three nights at an activity that’s geared toward seven-to-ten year olds. I know you’re at the edge of your seats.

I’m going to skip all that for today, however. It’s late. I’m tired. I covered in salves and lotions and bandages, and really, I want to watch a million clips from Comic-Con, and I want to sleep on a bed that doesn’t have a knotted tree root running through its middle. I have to catch up on my summer classes, mow the lawn, and spend time with the kid who didn’t go to camp, who seems happy that I’m home. I want to not hear crickets.

I also want to get back to Story366, to reading stories, to writing these posts. Before I left for camp, I had to get a few entries ahead, so Elizabeth Berg, David Vann, and Beth Helms‘ entries were done ahead of time, scheduled by the handy scheduling tool on WordPress, and then successfully posted by the magic of a wizard living inside my Mac. What this means is, it’s been since Tuesday since I’ve read a short story, since I’ve thought about stories, and I’ve missed it. After two hundred straight days and change of reading and discussing and then suddenly not doing that, it was strange. And by strange, I mean it was like not having my blanky to sleep with or my allergy meds (and actually, I had both).

Tonight, I got back on the horse with Rick Moody and the title story from his collection, Demonology. I’ve read a few of Moody’s books before, including The Ice StormPurple America, and The Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven, and had read a few stories from this book, including “Boys,” which is anthologized in that Scribners anthology I’ve been using since forever. I read a few more stories tonight—I really love Moody’s short fiction—and have settled on “Demonology,” which is the last story in the book as well as the title story.

“Demonology” seems like it’s going to be a story about Halloween. Moody sets the scene with a typical suburban trick-or-treating experience, nailing detail after detail of the ritual, practically deconstructing it. Kids wear costumes. They get candy. Parents talk on about this and that as they trail behind. Actually, Moody makes the whole thing sound kinda tired, and I was thinking, Wow, Rick Moody, who didn’t let you go trick-or-treating when you were a kid?

As I read on, I remembered that this is a story and just maybe, there’d be a reason for Moody to depict this sacred child’s right—and proven candy accumulation technique—as some run-of-the-mill tradition. There’s a voice going on here, one that Moody starts rolling down a hill, a voice that picks up steam and keeps going. The story continues with the kids—the narrator’s sister’s kids—returning home, clawing through their takes, calming down for bed. Slowly, the story changes its focus, however, to the sister, to the wall of photo albums, to pictures from previous Halloweens. All of a sudden, the tone changes from a really distant, sterile perspective to something considerably more nostalgic, the narrator describing old costumes, explaining their significance, adding anecdotes. Then the photo albums ease away from Halloween to shots of the sister in other situations, other memories. There are interspersed with more frontstory vignettes, what happens on All Saints Day (November 1), how life returns to normal for the sister’s family, the routines she returns to. She goes to work. She has lunch with a colleague. She drives home. We get some anecdotes from her past, from their past, hers and her narrator brother’s.

And before I knew it, “Demonology” became much more than a Halloween story, something I’m now questioning as a story, as fiction. I won’t tell you what I mean or go any further in the plot, but the narrative intent here is really important, to the story, to the narrator, and perhaps to Moody himself (some research just now confirms this). It’s unlike anything I’ve read before (in how it challenges genre) and is one of my favorite pieces I’ve written on this year, for a lot of reasons.

More on camp coming up in the next couple of days (unless that bite on my arm doesn’t get better …), but the Story366 streak lives on with Rick Moody’s tremendous “Demonology” from his tremendous collection Demonology. I’ve read upwards of four of his books now—which I can’t say about a lot of authors—making me a pretty legitimate fan (though I have some catching up to do). Perfect choice to get me back on track.

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July 22: “American Wives” by Beth Helms

Story366, what is up?  Today marks the third and last day of Cub Scout camp, a time that I’m depending on technology to properly post these entries for me as I’m off in the woods with my son, whittling and orienteering and whatnot. At this point of the trip, less than twenty-four hours to go, I’ll be an unshaven, unrested, sunburnt, and exhausted mess of a man, my son no better. Half of us will be used to camp, reconditioned to sleep on the ground, poop into a hole in the ground, and forget about technological conveniences, while the other half will just want drive-thru and YouTube.

For today, I read from Beth HelmsIowa-Short-Fiction-Award-winning collection American Wives, brought to us by the University of Iowa Press. Helms gives us the title story first, which I read and will write about here. So, here we go: “American Wives.”

“American Wives” is about Mary Frances, the wife of military officer named Charles. Charles has recently been reassigned to Frankfurt, Germany, after four months in Baghdad, an incident forcing him, Mary Frances, and their daughter Jess from their house in the middle of the night. They’re not sure if they’re ever going to get their stuff back—at least that’s an early Frankfurt concern—and because it’s the military and it’s wartime, they know they could be relocated, again, any day. It’s a disconcerting setup for a story, given to us within the first couple of pages, a disconcerting life for Mary Frances.

Most of the story that follows is a character examination of Mary Frances, Helms tracking for us how she deals with her shocking life changes. Overall, it’s not going well. Mary Frances is not making the proper adjustments, especially in her German studies; Charles speaks fluently, while Jess, just three, picks up more and more German every day, is speaking German more than she’s speaking English. It’s not just the language barrier, though. Jess isn’t feeling particularly  warm toward her fellow military wives, who form cliques based on their husbands’ ranks, who get together and gossip about their husbands, other ranks’ husbands, anything they can do to let off a little steam, pass judgment, team up on the people not in the room. Kind of reminds me, a little, of Lost in Translation, an American woman abroad in a strange and exciting land but just not feeling it.

To help with her German, Mary Frances takes an intro class at the local university and studies under Klaus, a robotic, emotionless teacher who seems to favor the English women and does not seem to like Mary Frances one bit. Still, desperate to learn this language—and perhaps make a friend—Mary Frances hires Klaus for some private lessons in her home, which Klaus agrees to do.

Klaus goes on to play a pretty big role in the story, and I won’t exactly go into how—you’ll have to read for yourself to find out. It’s a cool ending, though, Helms juggling a few different minor plot lines and characters at that point. The resolution and denouement of “American Wives,” like Mary Frances, is a hot mess, but I really admire how Helms puts a lot of balls in play and makes them go chaotic at just the right time: the same time.

“American Wives” succeeds in portraying a different character in a war, with a very contemporary twist, that person has to just go along with whatever, because that’s what she signed up for when her husband signed up. A TV show I’ve never seen but is on nowadays, Army Wives, deals with wives, though the wives in that show are Stateside, lacking that complete isolation that Beth Helms instills. I really like this story and hope to read more from this writer. She has a knack.

 

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