October 6, 2016: “The Apartments” by Karen Heuler

Here’s to you, Story366! It’s a gorgeous Thursday here in the Ozarks. Today, a non-teaching day, I caught up with some advisees, as it’s about that time when students start thinking about next semester. Despite the fact that advising appointments fill a lot of holes in my schedule (we like holes; holes are good), I actually enjoy being an advisor. It’s a chance for me to really get to know students, to ask them point-blank what they want to do with their lives, and more importantly, what they’re doing to make it happen. Just yesterday, a student came in and told me that she was minoring in screenwriting, as that was “the dream,” putting it in air quotes, kind of dismissing it. I took that as a nod to lecture her a bit, telling her that she shouldn’t be so flippant with her dreams. She’s 19, an Honors student, and seems to have all the smarts, talent, and energy in the world, yet she was relegating her “dream” to her minor, as if it was somehow ridiculous. I’m not out to make anyone feel bad, but at the same time, I made it clear to her that there’s no better time than the present to start making that happen. I realize the constraints put on millennials, a well as the stress, the pressure, and the disappointments, but really, if nobody tells this student, any of our students, to go for their dreams, then how are they going to succeed?

Okay, that’s a lot of patting myself on my back, but in reality, this isn’t that popular of a methodology amongst educators, not the safe or realistic path. In certain cases, I agree with the logic of stable longterm goals. Can an advisor tell every student in their care to just go for broke, especially when they teach in the fine arts? Should every student throw themselves into their art, knowing that the success rate (however that’s measured) is so low for artists? Will I have an army of angry parents coming after me, furious that their son or daughter left reason and job security behind in search of a dream? Well …. Certainly, I have students for whom I don’t recommend the chase-your-dream-now path. This particular student, though, after meeting with her for fifteen minutes, seemed special. I have no idea how my speech affected her, if at all, but gosh, how many of us (who aren’t still 19) wouldn’t want that opportunity again, to be smart, young, unencumbered, our whole lives and the world of opportunities in front of us? I refuse to let a statement like “that’s the dream” in air quotes go by without stopping and at least making a pitch for greatness.

For today’s post, I read from Karen Heuler’s brand-new collection of stories, Other Places, out from Aqueduct Press as part of their Conversation Pieces series. I’ve known Heuler for a while, having published a story of hers back in 2000, eventually blurbing her novel The Soft Room a few years later. So I know her work. Hearing about this new collection, made up of fantasy, sci-fi, and horror stories, I was excited, and knew I had to feature her on Story366. I read a few stories from Other Places today, including one piece, “The Alien Came Over the Hill,” which is more of a limerick than a story, and liked the range of topics and even genres. The story that sticks with me, though, without question, is “The Apartments,” so today I’ll write about it.

“The Apartments” is about Angela Wilson, a college instructor who, by chit-chatty chance, finds out that one of her students lives in the exact same apartment she lived in, forty years earlier, in the East Village. Angela finds this fascinating and odd (though neither the student nor her best friend do: “New York, you know …”) and the coincidence gets her to thinking about her past. Angela thinks about who she was back then, who she knew, what she was doing. She’s not obsessed with the idea, but she’s curious, leading her to knock on the door of her second apartment, in a different part of town, to clarify that this was indeed a coincidence, not something else, not something bizarre.

I was hooked into “The Apartments” by this point, then was further hooked by the fact that this second apartment was occupied by a former professor of Angela’s from grad school. “Angela, is that you?” the scratchy voice says over the intercom. Her old prof invites her up and Angela takes note of how the apartment’s changed—her old teacher loves red—and the pair catch up. Of course, what’s really going through Angela’s mind is what’s going through ours: This can’t possibly be a coincidence anymore. Angela is currently in the sixth apartment since moving to New York, giving her three more apartments to check out.

Angela, via Heuler, is patient, however, and doesn’t run to apartment number three, not right away. First, she takes in what’s happened—her old professor had a pretty convincing story about how he ended up there—but eventually, she not only gives in, but feels drawn to that third residence. The story, for Angela, for me as a reader, had at that point taken on an eerie feeling, like something in The Shining, the feeling that Angela had been to all these places before—which she had been … so it’s like The Shining, only in reverse.

I won’t reveal any more of the plot, but that visit to the third apartment only makes things more interesting, as themes and ironies and metaphors start to become more evident. The story doesn’t stop there, nor does it follow the pattern you’d expect, Angela visiting the fourth and fifth apartments, some sort of Christmas Carolian order. The story surprised me, it scared me, and at the end, it satisfied me. “The Apartments” is a great piece of fiction.

I’ve been a longtime fan of Karen Heuler’s fiction and am so glad to have gotten my hands on her new collection. Other Places is a menagerie of voices, styles, and philosophies, a book that so far, I’ve enjoyed very much.