September 10: “The Control Group” by Antonya Nelson

Happy weekend, Story366! I started this post by writing about how beautiful the day was, but how I spent it inside this 1980s-style arcade here in Springfield, a place called 1984, where you pay at the door and then can play all the upright old video games you want, all day, while they play 80s music on the speakers and 80s movies on TVs and VCRs posted around the store. Then I recalled, or thought I did, talking about 1984 once before in this blog, so I checked. I typed in “Story366 1984,” and instead of me finding one of my old post with an anecdote about this arcade, I found a very interesting link instead: A review of the film The Neverending Story, put out in 1984, on a blog called Film 366.

Wow, yeah. So, it’s not like daily blog projects haven’t existed since blogs have existed, and really, before that. People have always sworn, on a January 1, to do something every day for a year, be it exercise, make love to their spouse, or eat a green vegetable. Blogging, i.e., the Internet, has simply allowed us to do that online. What I’m getting at here is I’m not shocked to have found another daily blog project going on this year—I’m sure there’s lots.

As I’m covering a story a day, by a different author, from a different book, these guys are doing the same, only with movies. They seem to be covering a mix of classic films and contemporary ones (they started with 42, the recent Jackie Robinson biopic, on January 1). Sometimes they write a review, sometimes they post a trailer, and sometimes they post clips. All in all, it’s a pretty awesome project—I like movies, too.

Most coincidental are the similar titles. The fact that they’re Film 366 and I’m Story366 is pretty serendipitous, I think. On January 1, when I was trying to figure out how the hell to make a blog, it wasn’t until eight at night, on New Year’s Day, that I found the answer: Have Karen do it), I hadn’t even thought of needing a title until Karen asked at around nine. I thought about it for a sec and then just blurted it out. I mean, it made sense. And I’m sure the Film 366 guys—who for some bizarre reason put a space in their title—have a similar story. Or maybe they were lying on their backs in a meadow that morning and saw “Film 366” in the clouds. Or in their Alphabits. Or maybe something else.

In any case, I’m glad they’re out there, that someone loves something as much as I do (especially since I love what they love almost as much as what I love). Live on, Film 366. I hope you make it to the end.

Today’s post is a by a short story-writing legend, Antonya Nelson. Nelson is the author of ton of short story collections, a couple of which I’ve read before. Today’s selection, “The Control Group,” comes from one of her middle releases, In the Land of Men, out from Avon Books (though reissued by Simon & Schuster some time later). I could have picked any of the handful of stories I read from the collection, as all are solid, but “The Control Group” stuck out for me, for some reason, so here goes.

“The Control Group” is about TV Mitchell, this nine-year-old kid who’s in love with his fifty-two-year-old teacher, Mrs. Dugas. One of TV’s main characteristics, one of the ways that Nelson makes him charming, is his naiveté in the areas of love: He has no idea what this means, this love for this woman, or what he should do about it. (You know, like everybody.) TV is particularly confused by how Mrs. Dugas makes him feel. He doesn’t want to kiss her, doesn’t want to see her naked, and doesn’t even mention sex—this isn’t Alissa Nutting’s Tampa. He just understands that he’s happy when he’s near her, and when he’s not, he thinks about her, counts the minutes until he’s at school again; summer’s looming, too, ending his tenure in her class, parting them forever. This all makes him a really intriguing and unreliable protagonist, which is tough to do with a nine-year-old kid.

Oh, and by the way: What informs TV, and us as readers, is the fact that TV’s mom murdered her father—TV’s beloved grandfather—with a hammer, an got her boyfriend to help. Oh, the handkerchief she shoved in his mouth to keep him from screaming? TV carries that around with him wherever he goes and shows people. Nelson makes clear to us that as bewildered as TV is about love, he’s just as comfortable with death as a result of this incident. If he was intriguing and unreliable as a lovestruck fourth-grader, he’s infinity times more so given that piece of backstory.

Like all writers of her renown, Nelson has a knack for characters and what drew me to this story more than the others, perhaps, is this dichotomy, a kid so comfortable with death—TV tells his gruesome family tale on the playground (nobody takes his lunch money, that’s for sure, especially when he pulls out the handkerchief)—yet so thoroughly confused by love. Why Mrs. Dugas? We don’t even get a lot of description of her, something about her that he likes, something that intrigues him, maybe something that reminds him of his mother. TV could just have easily fallen for his foster mom, Joanne (hey, now there’s a story idea …), but no, it’s Mrs. Dugas. TV is so complex, so wounded, so unpredictable. He’s an amazing creation.

The story proceeds with TV taking the next natural step: He asks Mrs. Dugas out on a date. He calls her up, tells her who he is, pops the question, and after a second of silence, she says yes. They decide to meet for lunch at the Depot, this bar and grill that TV will have to take a bus to and that’s that. TV has a date with Mrs. Dugas.

Mrs. Dugas probably doesn’t look at it as a date date, right? TV thinks it is. He goes to the Depot the day before to scout it out. He secures money. He wonders where it’ll go from there. Now, so will you, as I’m going to stop there with the plot. More things happen to make this situation, and TV, more complicated, and all of it is surprising, yet made perfect sense after I read it. In other words, it’s a great story.

I really love Antonya Nelson’s work. She is one of our best and most accomplished story writers and In the Land of Men is just one of her many solid collections. So glad to finally get to her on this project, though it was always a given, from day one.