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.