August 21: “The Return of the Argentine Tango Masters” by Erin McGraw

Hello there, Story366! It’s Sunday night and in the morning, I begin my fall semester, marking the end of summer. Today also marked the end of the Olympics, as well as my time as a forty-two year old. It is truly a transitional day, and as I’ve referred to today as the New Year’s Eve for academics, I suppose I should put forth a resolution (as well as find a date and drink champagne). Like each actual New Year’s Eve, I don’t have very surprising or complicated goals for any given year, thinking I’ll lose weight, write more, spend more time with my family, and in general, try to be a better person.

It was this past New Year’s Eve, however, that I enacted my Story366 plan, decided to go forward with this idea that I’d devised at least a year earlier. So, in addition to all of those other usual suspects, I swore I’d read a story every day and write about it, posting on a blog (which I didn’t know how to make until around 5 p.m. on January 1, thanks to Karen). Nearly eight months later, here we are, me not missing a day, the resolution that I’ve kept far, far longer than any other.

Do I have any Story366 resolutions for the rest of the year? Actually, I don’t. I hope to finish things, of course, keep going for the last third of the year, to not miss a day, but that’s the same resolution I made when I got this all started. I’d like improve the Archives, though, so that’s something. I added the alphabetical listing at the start of summer—because that’s the kind of thing you take on at the start of summer. But I’d like to do a date-order archive, as well as a listing of presses. I’d also like to continue to round out the year with authors that I need to fit in, to continue to receive recommendations from you, the reader. What book/author haven’t I covered? What are your suggestions?

Finally, I’d like to do something with the books that are ineligible for Story366, the story collections I’ve already read. As the Story366 rules state that I have to read a new-to-me story every day, I can’t revisit collections that I’ve already read all the way through. There are so many, including friends like Seth Fried and Al Heathcock, authors I teach all the time like Aimee Bender and George Saunders, or authors I simply read and enjoyed, like Shannon Cain and Michael Nye. I want to give those authors and their books a shout-out, but I’ve read them already. How could I fit them in? I’m open to suggestions.

For today I read from Erin McGraw‘s collection Lies of the Saints, out from Chronicle Books. Not that anyone else probably does this, but I’ve alway confused this collection, on my bookshelf and in my mind, with Mary O’Connell‘s collection Living With Saints. I’d published one of the stories from O’Connell’s book in Mid-American Review, so I was happy to see it come out a few years later. That book features stories that fictionalize a different saint in each story, some of them about the saint, some actually from the saint’s POV. I’ve had McGraw’s collection on the shelf for a while, and honestly, hadn’t gotten to it because I’d assumed it was O’Connell’s. A recent shift of my Story366 workspace revealed the truth, so here we are, focusing on McGraw’s book (though I need to also now track down my copy of O’Connell’s, as I’d like to feature it here as well).

McGraw’s book isn’t really like O’Connell’s, as the lies of the saints aren’t really about actual Catholic saints, but about real people in contemporary times, sainthood and such more peripherally involved, perhaps just subtly implied. McGraw’s book is split into halves, the first just six random short stories, the second half a series of three interconnected stories called “Lies of the Saints.” I read a story from each half, including “Saint Tracy” from the back half, a story about a dad, his daughter, and their dog, which I like. I like today’s story, “The Return of the Argentine Tango Masters,” the collection’s lead story, a bit better, so let’s talk about that one.

“The Return of the Argentine Tango Masters” is about Gwen DeRitter, a radio call-in host in a small town in Indiana, who at the start of the story, is running late for work. Her alarm didn’t go off and there’s been some flooding, making her arrive at her station just five minutes before her show. Flustered, her boss giving her the stink eye, Gwen takes a call at the start of her show from a guy who’s very forward, who seems to know a lot about Gwen, who turns out to be Gwen’s ex-husband, Rafe, whom Gwen hasn’t seen or spoken to in fifteen years. Gwen is not happy to hear from Rafe, let alone be talking to him on the air, thus launching our story. Interesting character, interesting predicament—I was drawn in immediately.

Rafe’s call into Gwen’s show causes a bit of a local sensation, as it turns out, as Gwen’s normal listeners fall in love with Rafe. To Gwen, he was a verbally abusive ass hole whom she was glad to be rid of, but to her listeners, many of them lonely, middle-aged women, he seems like a romantic, a guy in search of a second chance, a chance they believe Gwen should afford him. Forget the fact that Gwen is happily remarried to a wonderful and patient guy named Leo, Gwen’s producer wants to make a bit out of it, Rafe calling in every day, for them to become a sort of team. During one of these early sessions, Rafe reveals his  favorite memory of his and Gwen’s marriage, the time they took a tango lesson at the Y, a revelation that launches the story in another direction: The same Argentinian tango teachers who taught the Rafe-Gwen class nearly twenty years before is willing to come back to Indiana, to the Y, and provide a reunion lesson, which Gwen’s boss and all of her listeners are enthusiastically in favor of.

That’s about as far as I’ll go, as revealing anything more would ruin the story. I’ll just express how much I admire this story. In the first couple of pages, we get the set-up, radio host taking a call from her ex, ex suddenly becoming part of her show, to her ultimate chagrin. Then McGraw keeps piling it on, making things more complicated with every page, yet still believable in every way. Rafe, whom we meet in person only briefly, is a tremendous character, this unstoppable, unkillable force who just keeps ruining Gwen’s sanity with each minor, and perhaps innocent, gesture. That’s the key, too, how multi-dimensional Rafe is. On one hand, he’s a monster, as he should know better, that he’s fucking with Gwen’s happiness. On the other, he’s making so many other people happy; in fact, every woman in Gwen’s listening range not only like his banter, but wants to date him, Rafe still trim, handsome, and boy can he tango. Worse, when Gwen tries to get rid of him on the air, at the tango reunion, only make her seem like a heartless bitch to her former fans, and all she die was rid herself of—or so she’d assumed—an abusive husband. What a story.

I like Erin McGraw’s stories, in Lies of the Saints, and in the other place I’ve read them. She’s a well established and talented author and I’m embarrassed to have waited so long to read this book, for Story366, or in general, thinking it was another book. Silly me.