August 12: “Book of Puzzles” by J.R. Miller

TGIF, right Story366? Since I wrote and posted yesterday’s entry on Sara Majka, I’ve worked at two—count ‘em, two—Cub games, two victories for the Cubs over the rival Cardinals. Today, we all fought off torrential downpours from late in the morning to get in the game, but yesterday, yesterday was the day to write about. In twenty-eight seasons of vending, there hasn’t been a more hot, humid, muggy, miserable day that I’ve put in at Wrigley. I started selling twenty-five minutes before first pitch, and by one out in the top of the first, I noticed a particularly foul odor in the air; before long, it sunk in that the odor was me. My uniform was completely saturated in sweat at that point, so much so that when I had to turn in my load tickets, they were soaked to transparency, and the cop who took the tickets at the commissary gave me some serious shit all night because I was giving him shit tickets. By the time I got home, two Byron’s Dogzillas in tow, all I could do was peel—and that’s the exact word, peel—my uniform off and ooze in the shower. Ick.

Today is also Karen and my tenth anniversary. Best ten years EVER!

I also read a few stories from J.R. Miller’s collection Nobody’s Looking, out from ELJ Publications. Nobody’s Looking is a combination of shorts and fuller-length stories. I read some of each type and admire how Miller has skills up and down the word count, themes ranging from childhood to relationships. I could have written about any of the stories I read, but am choosing one of the longer stories, “Book of Puzzles,” for today’s focus.

“Book of Puzzles” is about this guy who doesn’t have a name, except the narration calls him you throughout: Second person! I think one of the reasons I chose “Book of Puzzles” to write on is because it’s a solid second-person story, one that uses the perspective effectively, the pronoun falling into the background of the prose and the plot, yet still retaining both the rhythm and implied everypersonness of the story. Anyway, the you protagonist in this story has just begun a self-help class that he signed up for online and starts the story by describing his first session. The self-help group is the kind where the teacher won’t allow herself to be called “Ms. anything” or even a teacher, as she’s the students’ guide, helping them to find a status of self-actualization. Since the protagonist is trying to figure out who he is—troubles at work and at home—he plunked the $495 down for the course. And even though he recognizes the guide as “damaged and fucked-up”—she spends a good portion of the class reading everyone her tragic autobiographical poems—he thinks he’s found his answer.

After that first class, our hero heads home and we find out about his problems there: His wife, Sarah, just doesn’t see him any more. He’s literally in their bedroom, undressing, and she doesn’t notice he’s home until he crawls into bed with her. Even when he tries telling her about the class—she’s a psychologist, so he’s a little gunshy about discussing that—she doesn’t listen. Why? She’s working on a book of crossword puzzles, hence the title (for the literal interpretation). They go to bed without communication, let alone sex (which he’s quick to point out that they used to have all the time), so back to self-actualization class he goes.

The class guide, Carla, is up for the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in a Story, as she’s the quirky invention that really makes this story memorable. She’s a cliché, certainly, stabbing at every New Age technique, mixing in some personal drama and bumper-sticker philosophy. During a group share session, she asks our protagonist if he’s telling the truth, and when he asks, “Why would I lie?” she asks in turn, “Why would you tell the truth?” It’s that kind of generic Jedi logic that makes the class so interesting, so funny.

Eventually, Carla and our you end up talking after class, then end up talking at Carla’s apartment, drinking wine while Carla puts on her seduction pants. She tries varioius come-ons—she reaches across him for something, planting her face in his lap, e.g., following that up with lifting her breasts up and letting them fall, asking our guy to gauge their sag. The story comes to its zenith at that point, as our protagonist has to ask himself if this moment, in Carla’s apartment, Carla throwing herself at him—she also not-so-subtly asks if he thinks she’s the type of woman he’d leave his wife for—if he’s going to find his self-actualization in this pithy, easy affair, or maybe in his ability to stave that off. I won’t reveal what you chooses, as that would be giving away to much, but Miller ends “Book of Puzzles” in a way that both surprised me and satisfied me, which is all I ever ask in great endings.

I had not read anything by J.R. Miller before today, so I’m glad I got ahold of Nobody’s Looking and sampled what he does. His stories are traditional, unless we think at this point that second persons isn’t traditional, but are also witty, insightful, and well told, a nice introduction to a talented writer.

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One thought on “August 12: “Book of Puzzles” by J.R. Miller

  1. Pingback: August 13: “Somebody for Everybody” by J. California Cooper – Story366

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