July 15, 2016: “A Stranger in This World” by Kevin Canty

Hello, Story366! We are in Chicago after a long travel day and I’ve already vended beer at a Cub game at Wrigley Field this afternoon. This is the third trip to Chicago with the whole family this year, a trip that’s gotten considerably easier. The youngest, at three years old, is starting to figure out travel, how to be a team player, how to just sit back, relax, take in some scenery, nap. It’s 510-mile trip between my house in Springfield and my mom’s in the suburbs, and last year, it would take us twelve to fourteen hours, utilizing many pauses. We had a quick stop for gas at Redmon’s Candy Factory in Missouri (I got Sixlets), a stop for dinner in Springfield, Illinois, and then one more fill-up. We made the whole trip in nine and a half hours, easily a new family record (it takes me, solo, seven hours and forty-five minutes, stopping for gas once in the middle ). Way to go, team Czyznieaigo!

Tonight, we were supposed to meet with some of my old high school friends—with whom I’m still tight—four families getting together for dinner or whatever, meaning eight adults on a group text message, trying to coordinate schedules; i.e., it was doomed and nothing happened. It took fifty texts to figure that out, a bit sad, as it would have been fun to get together.

One good thing that came up in those texts was the Name Game. There’s a lot of things that can be called “The Name Game,” most prominently that “Banana Nana Fo Fanna” song that very well might be called “The Name Game.” The Name Game I’m talking about is a game that me and my friend Mike Jones invented in high school. Mike used to work with me as a vendor, at both the Cubs and White Sox games, so we spent a lot of time in cars, driving to and fro. We listened to bad eighties radio, but also invented this game. It’s pretty simple, not to mention overly stupid, and it goes like this: One person says a name, and then the next person has to say another name, the first letter of the second person’s first name the same letter as the first letter of first person’s last name. At first, we always started this way:

“Bill Cosby”
“Corbin Bernsen.”

Someone pointed out that this was confusing, as it seemed like you were supposed to reverse the initial letters of both names as you went along, which was a good point; in that model, the game would just be an unending switch of B and C first and last names. I don’t actually remember what we changed to second name to, but our Name Game always began with Bill Cosby (the tragedy of which isn’t lost on me in 2016).

So in this text stream between my friends, Mike Jones threw out a Bill Cosby and we started playing over the text message. Then Karen and I played it for a long time on the way home. Here’s a sampling :

“Bill Cosby.”
“Corey Haim.”
“Hank Aaron.”
“Anwar Sadat.”
“Sally Struthers.”
“Stephen Sondheim.”
“Steven Seagal.”
“Satchel Paige.”
“Pete Incaviglia.”
“Idris Elbus.”
“Eddie Munster.”
“Martin Lawrence.”
“Linda Lavin.”
“Lenny Bruce.”
“Bruce Davidson.”
“David Copperfield.”

It goes on from there until someone quits. Karen, at some point yesterday, said, “I’m tired,” and was asleep by the end of the sentence. Pretty simple, huh? Pretty boring, huh? Maybe, but the next time you’re in a car on a long trip with someone, try playing. It gets crazy out of control, quickly, and the next thing you know, a half an hour, an hour, a hundred miles have gone by. If you play with more than two people, you can install other rules, like reversing the order when double initials come up (Sally Struthers, etc.) or give extra points (note: there are no points) for using the same first name as the preceding last name (Lenny Bruce-Bruce Davidson).

A road intro (a long one!) seems appropriate today, as all the stories I read in Kevin Canty’s collection A Stranger in This World (from Vintage) involve car trips, have car trips as major plot points in the story. I read the opener, “King of the Elephants,” which is about a kid having to drive his drunk dad to DC to pick up his drunk and injured and arrested mom from the drunk tank. I read “Moonbeams and Aspirin,” about a doomed couple driving to Florida at the precipice of their end. The title story, “A Stranger in This World,” is about a woman and her boyfriend driving to Florida to visit his family, whom she’s never met. All of these characters easily could have played the Name Game, but of course they don’t, as Canty didn’t know what the fuck that was when he wrote these stories (and again, it’s pretty stupid).

The woman in “A Stranger in This World” is named Candy and her boyfriend’s name is Walter. Candy hates the word “boyfriend” at her age, thirty-four, shocked she still has things called boyfriends. Part of that is semantics, but a lot of it is Walter wasn’t supposed to be, as once upon a time, Candy was married to Greg, both of them twenty, Greg dying, never getting any older. Candy’s been jumping from guy to guy since, always haunted by Greg. As a matter of fact, the story opens with Candy and Greg together, a vision of love and happiness interrupted by Candy waking in the car next to Walter, realizing, lamenting, that it was all a dream. The couple gets to Walter’s soon after and Candy—who’s not fully on board with Walter and therefore dreading the trip—smiles when Walter’s mom won’t let them sleep in the same room because they’re not married.

“A Stranger in This World” isn’t a romp like Meet the Parents or (the underrated) Meet the Fockers. In fact, Canty makes it cooler and weirder by having Walter’s brother, Jim, look exactly like Greg (at least from the narration’s point of view—maybe anybody would have looked exactly like Greg in her mind). When Candy first sees him, she thinks that Jim is Greg. But no, it’s Walter’s brother. Slick move by Canty. This is one of those situations where once Candy and Walter walk in his family’s front door, literally anything can happen. It could be a crack house; Rich Little could be doing impressions in the kitchen; Walter’s mom could be dead in the bathtub. It’s a Pandora’s box, and in a story writer like Canty’s hands, I had a feeling it was going to be pretty sweet. Having Jim be Greg’s doppelganger is better than any of that stupid crap I just made up two sentences ago.

Next up is a fight between Candy and Walter over what they’re going to do when Walter sneaks in Candy’s room, leaving Candy pretty ticked (remember, she never wanted to be there in the first place). This leads her downstairs to hang out with Jim. Earlier, Canty describes Walter as a sweet, caring, considerate guy, a real catch, though the exact opposite type that Candy has been seeing since Greg died. Jim, however, back home because his wife has kicked him out, is more her speed, a hard-drinking and suggestive guy. When they run out of booze and watching softcore cable porn gets old, the two head out to a local bar, Walter and the rest of his family asleep and unaware.

There’s a lot left to this story, but I think I’ll stop with the plot here. What’s next is another Pandora’s box, because again, literally anything can happen when Candy and Jim leave that house. What does happen next isn’t predictable, isn’t typical, but is completely satisfying, completely perfect. What a great story, a great character, this woman who doesn’t belong and has nothing to lose at the same time. Not a bad combo, from this story writer’s perspective.

I’ve read stories by Kevin Canty over the years (in fact, I’m pretty sure I read “King of the Elephants” before, years ago, in New England Review), but never any of his books. So glad to have come across this collection, as I liked every story and want to read more.

Kevin Canty