October 13: “Scoring” by Matthew Vollmer

Hey hey, holy mackerel, Story366! FYI, that salutation there has special meaning to me in a couple of ways. First off, “Hey hey, holy mackerel!” is the opening line of a Cubs fight song from 1969, a song they still play at the stadium every day. Since I’ve turned this into a dual Cubs/short story blog during the playoffs, you’re going to get that kind of information. Secondly, “mackerel” was the word that bonged me in the eighth-grade spelling bee. I was my school’s representative in sixth grade, was runner-up in seventh, then won again in eighth (Sue Mattull was second each time I was first and vice versa). I studied extra-hard that year, wanting to make it out of the regionals at the very least, but no. The third word I got was “mackerel,” and immediately I knew that I had no idea how to spell it. I for some reason thought there were two Cs and guessed “M-A-C-C-E-R-A-L” and got the I’m sorry, that’s incorrect from the bee administrator. I sat down next to my parents in the audience and watched the other eighth graders spell words I couldn’t spell, the top three moving on to districts or state or whatever the next phase was called. In any case, every time I hear that song at Wrigley, on TV, or on my iPod (I work out to Cubs rally songs, yes), I think of my failure at the eighth-grade spelling bee.

For today’s post, I read from Matthew Vollemer‘s newest collection, Gateway to Paradise, out from Persea BooksGateway to Paradise is a combo of stories and novellas, the latter of which includes the title piece. I read a couple of the stories, “The Visiting Writer” and “Scoring,” works that feature a couple of similarities, including their protagonists and some arc details. More interestingly, both stories speak to me and experiences that I’ve had. One is about picking up a visiting writer at an airport and entertaining her, as I’ve done many time, while today’s featured story, “Scoring,” is about a guy scoring ACT tests for a week down in Daytona Beach. I never scored, but Karen did for several years, and once, when our oldest wasn’t quite one, we drove down with her and hung out on the beach. Vollmer and I are both in academia, both English professors, so it’s not surprising that we have some shared experiences. It was fun, though, to happen across a couple of stories that fictionalized those experiences, and did so very well.

“Scoring” is about Martin “Stash” Postachian, an English teacher who is making some extra cash scoring the ACT in Daytona. As noted, this is a real thing, something Karen did for a number of years. For eight hours a day, hundreds of these types sit in a Hilton conference room, reading as many ACT essays as they can, having to get through a million or so in a week. Stash is one such reader, on a break from his pregnant wife and kids because they could use the money, which will amount to a mortgage payment (which, if you have a mortgage, is how you think). It’s not all that easy for Dana, his wife, when he goes, but since the baby will arrive soon, she gives him this week, knowing full well that when Stash isn’t scoring, he’s drinking hard liquor with some scoring buddies, smoking cigars, sitting on the beach, and ogling co-eds. Stash doesn’t deny this, and at least for one more go, he’s in Daytona. He has to eat at the ACT hotel buffet and he only has $100 to spend—drinking hard with his buddies soaks most of that up that first night—but he’ll manage.

Chris Rock once said that men are only as faithful as their options, and as much as Dana doubts their need for money or Stash’s true intentions, she’s never doubted his devotion to her. Neither has Stash, not until he goes to the mall, to buy running shoes (because his buddies drink hard at night but run hard, on the beach, at dawn). At the mall he meets Inge. Inge is a lovely young woman selling skincare products out of a kiosk, her loveliness serving her sales well. Stash, who doesn’t even have money for running shoes, is suddenly buying a fifty-dollar package from Inge, who not only bats her eyes, but scribbles her name, phone number, and the words Call me! on the receipt. This gesture causes Stash to go into all kinds of speculation, whether Inge really means it, if she writes that on everyone’s receipt, and of course, why he should even be thinking of this: He has Dana, a kid, and another on the way. Is he the type of guy who goes down to Daytona and sleeps with some teenager? Is he the guy who doesn’t? Suddenly, “Scoring” becomes a basic morality tale (plus, gets secondary meaning for its title).

Stash has to find out if the offer is real, at least fish a bit, play along. He calls Inge’s number on the receipt and makes up some goofy story about not being able to find the shoe store, in the mall, asking Inge if she could help him. She agrees. Suddenly, Stash’s morality test becomes more like an exam, an exam that gets more and more difficult as things escalate. I’ll stop there in terms of plot revelation, giving you something to read for yourself, but what starts as a story about nonchalance turns pretty intense, presenting some high stakes. Vollmer’s best selling point, though, is the inner monologue, the voice. Told in third person, we get deep inside Stash’s head, hear his reasoning, watch as this unreliable character becomes more and more dubious as he struggles with his decisions. Vollmer’s created a great character in Stash, not because of anything Stash does or doesn’t do, but how he reaches his decisions. Credit Vollmer’s superior writing for that victory.

I’ve read both fiction and nonfiction by Matthew Vollmer before and always enjoyed it. I’m so glad I was able to get ahold of Gateway to Paradise, to string some of his stories together. It was a real treat and I hope to get to that title novella sooner rather than later.