August 17: “Remarkable” by Dinah Cox

Greetings, Story366! Today was the first day of school for my oldest boy, a notable day for anybody who has kids, another step toward them growing up, toward no longer being kids. After going to three schools in his first three years of school-going, my son has now started his fourth year at this same school, which has brought about all kinds of stability and comfort. Sadly, it’s also his last year at this school, as next year, he ships off for sixth grade, and in Springfield, that means middle school, which is in another building, a building adjacent to a high school, buildings which are not three blocks from our house. There are no kiddie playgrounds at this school, no pick-up lines, and no adorable little kindergartners with their runny noses and … hey, wait, whu?! Kindergartners is spelled like that? Have I never noticed this before? I tried typing in kindergardners and kindergardeners and got these red squiggly underlines and only found the “correct” spelling through auto-correct. Why the fuck is English like this? Is it MLA’s fault? I like blaming MLA for things, things like block quotation format (Why does the period come before the parenthetical note at the end just for block quotes?), these things <> having no discernible name, nose hairs, and all the general suffering in the world. It was probably some German-English linguist in the 19th Century, but since I don’t feel like looking that up, I’ll just blame MLA.

For today’s post, I read from Dinah Cox’s collection Remarkable, out from BOA Editions, winner of a BOA Short Fiction Prize, the first book from this series that I’ve covered this year (I’ve gotten my hands on all the winners of the series, courtesy of BOA, so this won’t be the last). BOA, of course, was known for poetry for a lot of years, but since BOA is cool and fiction is cool (cooler than poetry, hence this not being Poem366), it was only a matter of time before they came around and started publishing fiction and sponsoring a rad contest.

I hadn’t read anything by Cox before opening her book this morning, but I’ve read several pieces now, starting with the title story, “Remarkable.” I liked all the stories I read—I was tempted to write about “Three Sad Stories,” one of three topical triptych pieces in the book—but something about “Remarkable” stuck with me, so here goes.

“Remarkable” is about Judith, who tells (from some future perspective) of the Halloween night she was nine that her grandfather burned down his furniture accessory store, Remarkable Lamps. Remarkable Lamps is named after his wife, Judith’s grandma, who is (remarkably) named Remarkable. Judith is over at their house for trick-or-treating, a ritual that has been interrupted by some cold weather, some costume malfunction, and perhaps some being tired of trick-or-treating. A good hunk of the story is set in their kitchen, as they argue about whether Judith should wear her coat over her costume, how Grandpa has handed his business over to to his no-good son (Judith’s dad) and daughter-in-law (Judith’s step-mom), and what to do with the diamond ring Judith found in her trick-or-treat bag.

Wait, what? Okay, that’s a lot, but that’s what I really like about “Remarkable,” all the plot points that Cox juggles into her story. There’s the immediate revelation of the arson—that comes in the first line—the fact it’s Halloween, Grandpa giving his fifty-year self-started business to his son, and because that’s not enough, this engagement ring is thrown in, as Cox probably felt like she needed a MacGuffin in the mix as well. I love that, how many variables are tossed into the mixing bowl, most of them on the first page, the writer having to deal with all of them, having to write her way out of (or into) the chaos she’s created. I try to do this in my own writing—a basic Mike Czyzniejewski story starts with a scenario like this, at least three things going on at once—and I teach this method of narrative to my students. Cox is my kind of writer. “Remarkable” is my kind of story.

So, all of this stuff is going on right away, but it’s probably important to remember two things when reading “Remarkable”: 1) the story is told from that future perspective, an adult looking back on an event from her childhood, so there’s that unreliability; and 2) we get the info about the grandpa burning his own store down in the first sentence. Did I remember that as the story moved forward? Not until we circle back around, when Judith escorts her grandfather to said arson. I don’t feel like I’m revealing too much about the plot by pointing this out—again, Cox tells us this before we get to the first punctuation mark—but I’ll not go into the rest of the details, either, so there’s something to discover when you seek this out (which I heartily recommend).

There’s a few stories in Remarkable that feature kids and sad memories, including the aforementioned “Three Sad Stories,” which all kinda utilize that theme. Oddly, the description on the back flap places a lot of the stories in Oklahoma, yet I don’t remember any of the four stories I read mentioning the Sooner state (though the cover image makes more sense now). Did I miss the point of Cox’s book? Maybe. I do like what I’ve read so far, though, and that looms as more important. I’m thrilled to have discovered this writer, yet another Story366 victory.