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.