August 16: “In the Age of Automobiles” by Anthony Varallo

Hey hey hey, Story366! Back home today after over a week on the road. We woke up in a Drury Inn outside St. Louis, had one last complimentary breakfast, filled the car with gas one more time (where a guy was leaning against one of the gas pumps, talking on his phone and smoking a cigar … !), and pulled into Springfield just around noon. It was great to walk in and see our clean house (we have to clean before trips so my cat-sitting grad students don’t see the filth we usually live in), see our happy kitty, and settle in for the semester. The oldest boy starts school tomorrow, fifth grade, and I have meetings to attend, syllabi to write, and an office to clean (which is also covered in filth, yet for some reason I allow those same cat-sitting grad students to visit all the time … !). I’ll be glad to get back to school at this point, start the semester, for no better reason than to stop writing about how the summer is winding down and I have to go back to school. Faithful readers, can you tell I get antsy about that?

Back up. Really, you’re not supposed to smoke next to a gas pump, right? I’m not sure about the mobile phone thing—I’ve heard about static electricity building up on those and causing pumps to ignite, explode, kill people, etc.—but is that still a thing? I’m pretty sure, though, that you’re not supposed to smoke next to gas pumps, though, white-hot ash falling about, the same spot where gas droplets and splashes coat the cement? Right? The weird thing was, the guy looked pretty young, and he wasn’t even the driver of the car he was sitting by: A youngish middle-aged woman was inside, which made me think it was the guy’s mom. So I started imagining: Guy: Hey, Mom. I’m going to fill up the car and catch a smoke next to the gas tank, make a call. Mom: Okay, Hon. I’ll just sit here and let you do that because that’s a great ideaI finished filling my tank, squeezing that nozzle trigger like my life depending on it (…), and sped away. We heard no explosion as we raced down I-44. Mark this down as a minor near-death experience, about a 2 on a scale of 10 for how close I was to death (look to this Story366 post for a 10 and this one for a 5).

Today I read from Anthony Varallo‘s collection Out Loud, a winner of a Drue Heinz Literature Prize from the University of Pittsburgh Press, enjoying all the stories I read verily. I started with the title story, “Out Loud,” a piece about this writer guy—who seems to have failed out of college—who takes some neighbor kids to their swim lessons every day. I read some shorts, which Varallo is good at—I had the honor of publishing one about a pinball a while back in Mid-American Review. I finished by reading the opening story to the collection, “In the Age of Automobiles,” and since it was my favorite of the bunch, I’m writing about it.

“In the Age of Automobiles” is about Cody, a kid who just got his snow boots stolen after school, who runs into one of his teachers, Mr. Turner, and asks him for a ride home. Cody’s supposed to take the bus, but the creeps who took his boots are on the bus, and, well, Cody’s decided to skip that add-on. Mr. Turner—who once got Cody suspended for fighting, despite Cody again being the mere victim—agrees to give Cody a ride home, Cody telling Mr. Turner nothing about the bullies and his snow boots. Thus begins a really tense situation, tense in a couple of ways. Firstly, what kid Cody’s age (I’d guess fourth grade) wants to hang out with his teacher after school, have weird, uncomfortable conversations? Secondly, there’s no way this teacher should be giving a student a ride home. My Cub Scout leader training—I’ve have to watch videos and take an online test every other year—tells me that at no point should any adult ever be alone in a car with a kid, even one he knows, but here we are, Cody in Mr. Turner’s car, driving off, not a single other person aware of what’s going on.

As I read, maybe my nervousness for Cody’s safety was a bit premature, as maybe I was being paranoid. Maybe this was the type of town where things like this happened all the time, Mr. Turner doing a kid a favor, no questions asked. Has reading so many stories this year made me so foreboding? Short stories, by nature, by definition, tend to have things go wrong in them. So, yeah, I probably get a little worried about the well being of protagonists as they enter precarious situations like Cody does in “In the Age of Automobiles.” I can’t point to anything specific from the story that made me think Mr. Turner was going to do Cody harm, but still, I thought it.

And even if Mr. Turner isn’t planning on murdering/raping/bothing poor Cody instead of taking him home, Varallo for-sure supplies us with plenty of that other tension, Cody having to drive with his teacher, sit through uncomfortable conversation. Mr. Turner starts with chit chat, but eventually, grows rather pathetic, in that adult-stranger sort of way, talking about his personal life, his problems, as if Cody cares, let alone recognizes a teacher as a real person. I mean, remember seeing your teachers out in public when you were a kid, outside of school, like at restaurants and stores and stuff? Was anything more weird? The only reason Cody seeks this ride is because he wants to beat his mom home, who’s getting off of work soon, so he doesn’t have to explain why he’s come home without his snow boots. Hanging with Mr. Turner and listening to him talk about the fiancé who dumped him and how he was fat as a kid is the price he’ll pay to avoid that explanation.

The story hits a climax when, inexplicably, Mr. Turner decides to stop at a Howard Johnson’s, not far from Cody’s house, for a bite to eat. Just when Cody thinks he’s going to get home, that this nightmarish trip is over, Mr. Turner stops for dinner! Is this the first solid indication that Cody will never make it home? Or is it just a lonely, sad man making a mistake, seeking human companionship—he acknowledges Cody’s bullying, comparing it to his own—from a source that he shouldn’t? You’ll have to read the story to find out.

I’ve known Anthony Varallo for some time, seeing him every year, for the past sixteen years, at AWP, chatting at the book fair, lifting a glass at a party, stealing hub caps from the hotel parking garage, that sort of thing. I’ve read quite a few of his stories over the years, too, including his first collection, This Day in History, a John Simmons Award winner. Anthony writes about childhood a lot it seems, a nostalgic feeling running through just about all of his work, the tension of everyday life making his stories a lot of fun to read—I thought for sure one of the swim-lesson kids in “Out Loud” was going to drown. This is a talented writer and his stories are great stories.