July 11: “Murder” by Curtis Smith

Happy Monday, Story366! Tonight is the Major League Baseball Home Run Derby and tomorrow is the All-Star Game. The Chicago Cubs are experiencing an embarrassment of riches this year, sending seven players to San Diego to represent. That’s not unprecedented—they sent eight in 2008—but it’s been a nice year for them, despite some recent troubles. The All-Star game is perhaps my favorite sporting event of the year, especially when a lot of Cubs are involved, so I will be glued to the TV.

All of this got me to thinking about the Story366 project, if maybe I should commemorate the occasion with a Story366 All-Star team. I’m not exactly sure what that would look like, but I could do something like pick my favorite first-person stories, third-person stories, experimental stories, etc., and have them … play a game against each other? Yeah, I don’t dunno how this would work. First, I’d have to figure out if the game would mean anything—be a true exhibition or count for something—like first-person stories, if they win, they get to … yeah, like I said, I dunno.

I could make it an awards-type thing instead, give out trophies for Best Third Person Limited Past Short Story, Most Unreliable Narrator, and Best Use of Passive Voice, that type of thing. I could include fan voting from that angle, though I wonder what requirements I’d make to be a part of the Story366 Academy. Maybe only the authors of the reviewed stories could vote. Maybe only the people who subscribe to the blog. Maybe someone has to Like a page a hundred times before they have a say.

I’ve accumulated a lot of great stories in my brain since January 1, and by the end of the year, it would be hard to pick just one. I have some standouts, some stories I’ll teach, though some of those teaching stories might be for craft purposes more than I think they’re the best stories of all time. There’ve been so many, though, that would be a part of my all-time anthology, if I had to make one, if some press gave me the opportunity and a bunch of cash to buy the rights from the authors and presses. I could do a twenty-story anthology, or better yet, one of those Norton-sized anthologies; heck, Norton could put out the Norton Anthology of Story366, every single story, all 366. Would you buy that, Story366 reader? Actually, I bet you would. Sadly, when I say “you,” as in my loyal Story366 reader, I’m talking about fifty people. Probably not enough for me to pitch in the Norton office come January.

Anyway, today’s all-star is Curtis Smith, a writer with a handful of story collections, including today’s book, The Species Crown, out from Press 53. I’ve had the privilege of publishing Curtis in both Mid-American Review and Moon City Review, and have literally liked every single story I’ve read by him. Venturing into The Species Crown hasn’t changed that at all, as I got five to six stories deep, way more than I usually read for a post, but I couldn’t stop myself. I’m a big fan of Smith’s work.

Today I’m writing about the first story in the collection, “Murder,” a fine choice for a first story because it’s intriguing and brilliant and memorable, just what any lead story should be in a collection. As noted, I read the next five stories, too, and like them all, but have not read the title piece yet, as it’s a novella and long and I don’t write about novellas for this. So, “Murder” it is.

“Murder” chronicles a murder, so the title is straightforward. Its protagonist doesn’t have a name, but is simply referred to as “you,” because, guess what? This is a second-person story. I actually didn’t remember that until just now, when I went back to the story to check the POV, wondering if it was first or third, and was pleasantly reminded that the reader is placed in the shoes of the protagonist/killer here, which works really well. I’m sure I’ve done one or two other second-person stories for the blog—Google tells me that most of Ben Tanzer’s “Sex and Death” is in second person—and I like those stories a lot. Like most readers and teachers and writers, second person has to come in moderation, and if indeed I’m only covering my second on July 11, then that sounds about right.

The story is set come time after said murder, the protagonist, you, making his way through life after killing a friend and business associate with a pipe and then using the crime-scene knowledge he gained from watching shows like CSI to bleach the site of the murder, burn his clothes, and bury the remains way out in the woods. He has, for the time being, gotten away with killing, and the story is about how he lives with himself—this is no hardcore killer, but a first-timer, a one-timer, and it’s tough knowing that you’ve killed another human being.

Especially since, we find out, the victim was you’s (your?) friend. What happened was, the protagonist and the victim, Gill, found out about a spool of pure copper wire being delivered to the factory where they work, knowing it will arrive late at night, knowing that there’s nobody in the factory at that time aside from a single security guard, who often passes out drunk during his shift. This is the same copper wire that people scrap out of houses, like in Denis Johnson’s “Work” or Matt Bell’s novel Scrapper, thieves breaking into abandoned properties to pull it out of the wall and sell by the pound. Only in this story, Gill and you don’t have to break into houses to get a few pounds of wire: A whole spool of it, hundreds of pounds, is coming to their shoddily protected place of employment. It’s easy money, really, two thousand each, the partnership a booming success.

Only, things are not what they seem. You gets word that Gill didn’t get four thousand for the spool of copper wire: He got eight. This means that Gill shorted you a couple grand, double the original take, and since our protagonist is a lifetime criminal, getting screwed like this won’t be tolerated. Metal pipe, meet Gill’s head. Gill’s head, meet metal pipe.

Again, the murder is only a part of this story, the backstory. What this is really about is how you has to deal with this horrible action he’s committed, how he has to move on. Gill was his friend as well as his partner in crime, a guy he drank beers with, threw darts with, a guy who had a severe stutter that everyone laughed at him for, everyone except you. What happens at the end of the story, Gill long dead, rotting in the ground, is for you to read and find out for yourself. But it’s a fantastic story and ending, an intense and touching way to kick off a fine collection.

One other note: I like how Smith physically cuts between the past and the present, trailing off on thoughts, using ellipses to just sort of end paragraphs and ideas, and ellipses again to just sort of wonder into another point, another memory. It reminds me a bit of Mark Costello’s “Murphy’s XMas,” where scenes in mid-sentence, Murphy blacking out from booze, the story reflecting that on the page. Smith’s approach is just as successful, as we really see how often you has to deal with these feelings and memories, how he’s constantly tuning in and out from is guilt. Good show, Smith, for thinking of that.

I’m a fan of Curtis Smith’s stories, and the ones I’ve read in The Species Crown do nothing to change that. Smith is a vivid, eclectic, and imaginative writer, and if you haven’t read him before, I implore you to get your hands on his books. He’s someone you should be reading.