October 4: “Dog Years” by Melissa Yancy

How’s it going, Story366? I hope you’re having as good of a day as I am. Tuesdays are weirdly satisfying days for me, as that’s the day I usually get everything done. I don’t teach on Tuesday/Thursday, but for some reason, Thursdays seem busy, anyway, me trying to make the week end right for my classes. Tuesday, though, is garbage day, for one, so I have to collect all the garbage from around the house and get that out to the curb, stops that include the fridge (sorry, Korean leftovers, but we forgot about you), the bathrooms (nothing good in there), the litter box (sometimes this doesn’t happen every week), and my oldest son’s bedroom (I have no specific parenthetical note for this). Once the garbage has been relocated to said curb, I start feeling like like Schneider from One Day at a Time and start hunting down projects around the house (click here to watch Mark Hamill as Schneider’s clepto nephew in a pre-Star Wars gig). That usually ends up being dishes and laundry, not exactly Mr. Fixit stuff, but still, that’s the kind of thing that keeps our place from sinking into haunted house status.

All that nonsense behind me—I snap out of it pretty quickly, when I realized I don’t know how to do anything—I then read a couple of stories from Melissa Yancy‘s new collection Dog Years, which is due tomorrow from the University of Pittsburgh Press, this year’s winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Award. I’ve seen Yancy’s name here and there in magazines, though I don’t think I’ve ever read her work before, so this was a new venture. It ended up being a treat, too, as both of Yancy’s stories—which are all pretty long, around twenty-five pages each—struck me as well crafted, original, and heart-rending. Both feature medical professionals as protagonists—Yancy herself works as fundraiser for healthcare causes—both of whom are dealing with dying loved ones (among other things, of course). They weren’t the funnest stories to read because of that content, but Yancy’s skills as a writer supercede any plots, any tragedies. I can tell this is a good book.

Today, as per usual, I’ll write about the title story. “Dog Years” is about the Berger family, headed by protagonist Ellen. The story starts in a big box store, where Ellen tries to control what goes into the cart, trying to save money, trying to feed her family good food, which as any parent knows, is nearly impossible, especially both of those combined. Ellen stakes her claims, but is often outvoted, outwitted, the scene serving as a metaphor for Ellen’s entire life as a head of household. The scene also sets the tone, that this is a story dealing with real issues, real people, real concerns. Nancy isn’t afraid to drop real brand names into the discussion because, you know, Cheerios are real, so why not call them Cheerios and note how the plain ones are cheaper than the flavored kind?

On top of all that, Yancy slips one subtle line into that scene, something about her younger son, Zach, facing a short life. She’s not just talking about what his diet will do to him, either. In the next scene, we find out that Zach suffers from Duchenne’s, a genetic disorder, a form of muscular dystrophy, one that will claim him by his early twenties. The effects, for now, are hard to notice, but Ellen and her husband, Gordy, are both geneticists, so they know what’s coming. Both used to be cancer researchers, but as soon as Zach was diagnosed, they switched over to the Duchenne’s, are the scientists working on this disorder in the world. They receive ridiculous support from a private research facility, have seen millions of dollars fundraised for their efforts, and lecture on the subject at universities. This insider status also reveals a tragic truth: They know, more than anyone, that even with breakthroughs, with miracles, they probably won’t come up with a cure in time to save their son.

So that’s “Dog Years,” the first and title story from Yancy’s collection. How bold, I was thinking as I read, to put this story first in a collection, to write about a dying child. Yancy’s more than up to the task, though, as she’s got the goods. The fact she writes longer stories makes sense, as the details of the Bergers’ lives are flushed out, from the type of Cheerios each person prefers to the kind of movies they let Zach, 12, take in. “Dog Years,” Zach reminds Ellen when something entirely too R-rated is on the screen, referring to how he’s approaching his end. Their family dynamic can be summarized with that line: Zach knows he’s dying, that he’s already two-thirds of the way through, but is sly enough to use that to his advantage, to hear some swears, maybe eye some nudity. His decline is in its early stages, so it’s acceptable; soon, however, he’ll need a lift chair to get up and down the stairs and that kind of jockeying might fall by the wayside. Not yet, though, Yancy makes clear, though you can’t tell that to Ellen’s inner monologues.

I admire the heck out of Melissa Yancy for pulling this story off, then the second story, “Consider This Case,” as well. That one’s about a fetus surgeon whose father is dying from lung cancer, who has to move in with him for the final few weeks he’s got left. Another tragedy, but Yancy nails that one, too, the irony of that story’s protagonist miraculously saving the unborn while his father dies before his eyes not lost on anyone, including his dying father. I’m not sure if every story in Dog Years is about someone dying, someone trying to save them—I’d guess no—but that’s how she starts her new collection, with that 1-2 punch. I’m sold, and soon, I hope to find out what else she has up her sleeve.

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