October 17: “Last Words of the Holy Ghost” by Matt Cashion

Greetings, Story366! Again I write to you from the road, literally, as I’m in Troy, Illinois, just short of St. Louis, heading back to Springfield. The boys are in a McDonald’s Playland, meaning I’m going to do my post now as opposed to at 11 tonight, my ETA. Still 210 miles to drive, but if this post is up, then I’ll feel better, feel like I can conquer the last leg with two (hopefully sleeping) boys in the backseat, no pressure to push the pedal too hard.

Since yesterday’s post, we unfortunately saw the Cubs fall to the Dodgers, 1-0, due mostly to the fact that Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher on the planet and proved it last night. There was a moment in the eighth when Javy Baez sent a pitch to the wall in center, one man on, but the ball was caught. Another five feet and the Cubs would have been up 2-1, leaving the game in the hands of the bullpen. It was not to be, however, and now the series is tied. The only fun part of any of this was Kershaw’s reaction, because as soon as Baez hit the ball, Kershaw thought it was gone. You could see it on his face when he turned, hunched over, and rested on his knees. When the ball was caught, he breathed a sigh of relief. To boot, Kershaw’s manager, Dave Roberts, was in the dugout laughing at him because he saw it, too, that Kershaw thought he’d just lost his team the game. Right now, I wish there was some rule that said “If a pitcher gives up a hit that he thinks is a home run, then it’s officially a home run, even if it lands in the field of play.” There isn’t, though, so we go to LA, series tied.

I still like our chances: Kershaw can only pitch one more game.

That confident proclamation brings me to the story half of Story366. Today I read from Matt Cashion‘s excellent collection Last Words of the Holy Ghost, out from the University of North Texas Press as a winner of one of their Katherine Anne Porter Prizes in Short Fiction. I was familiar with Cashion’s work before—I published two of the collection’s stories in Moon City Review—so I knew going in there was going to be a good chance I’d like whatever I read. Once in a while, I’m right-on: I liked whatever I read. Of the few stories I took in before leaving Chicago this afternoon, I was particularly fond of the title story, so I’m going to write about it now.

“Last Words of the Holy Ghost” is about Harold, this kid living in coastal Georgia with his mom, Jude, and her boyfriend, Clay. Harold is 14 and in love with Rose Carver, who is 15 and lives ninety miles away. The two have been writing love letters and Harold can’t wait to have a date with Rose, to take her to a movie, only there’s one hitch: Rose’s parents won’t let their daughter date anybody until that young man has been saved (by, we later find out, Rose’s uncle/minister). Jude has raised Harold as a Catholic, and is pretty serious about it, but she’s also thinking that Harold can do better than Rose—Rose’s family lives on a trailer on Clay’s hundred-acre farm and takes care of the land; Rose also dresses promiscuously, which Jude doesn’t like, either.

Harold, however, doesn’t have a problem with it. Cashion’s third-person narrator doesn’t hide the fact that Harold is into Rose, is in love with her, but really he just wants to have sex with her. In the story-writing business, we call that motivation, but it’s also common sense: In general, guys, even at 14, don’t drive ninety miles and convert religions because they want to hold hands. Harold spends day and night thinking of his plan, to take Rose to a movie, to start kissing her, and for that to lead to lots and lots of sex. Details like where this sex would take place and what they’d use for protection don’t enter into Harold’s mind. He simply does what he has to do to set up this scenario, for him to be at a movie with Rose, letting the rest take care of itself.

What Harold has to do is get saved, and he does so with Clay’s help. Clay is that rare mom’s boyfriend figure who is liked by the mom’s kid. Clay is the only person in Harold’s life giving him any guidance, let alone time of day. So when the pair drive inland to Clay’s farm, Clay gives advice, but doesn’t get in the way when Harold gets dunked in a tank, his soul belonging to Jesus forever. Jude’s going to be mad, but we get the feeling that Clay likes this arrangement, his girlfriend’s son matching up with his tenant’s daughter, like some sort of farmer Emma.

Not long after Harold’s spiritual purification, he gets his date with Rose, the pair dropped off at the movie theater, Harold ready to enact his have-sex-with-Rose plan. There’s a speed bump, however, when Rose excuses herself at the beginning of the movie … and doesn’t comes back. Harold is worried and eventually goes to find her, tracking her down in the lobby after the movie, just as her father comes to pick them up. Harold is embarrassed and devastated (and probably still horny) and the two part without as much as a goodnight kiss. Harold doesn’t know what to do.

Clay, as Harold’s only guiding light, advises Clay to give Rose another chance—remember, he has ties to both parties—especially after Rose writes Harold a long apology letter, claiming something about a girlfriend needing help, a girlfriend who had yet to be saved and was therefore off limits. Harold, still hoping to bed Rose and the two have another movie date planned.

And that’s as far as I’ll go into the story, which is pretty far into its length, though a lot more happens. There’s twists that Harold has to deal with, making for a pretty serious story, though one I enjoyed a great deal. Cashion has a real knack for character, for finding wayward goofs like Harold to populate his tales. One of the stories I published in Moon City, “Awful Pretty,” featured a similarly down-on-his-luck guy, only older, his family even more strange and disturbed. It was one of the first stories I ever accepted for the journal and is still one of my Moon City favs.

All in all, Matt Cashion exhibits real talent in the short story field, especially in creating characters who have problems and seem to find ways to make them worse before they get better (and they often don’t get better). That’s just great fiction, conflict-filled human studies that are often tragic, but hilariously so. Cashion’s keen eye for detail and soft spot for oddballs makes Last Words of the Holy Ghost a real gem. It’s a truly fantastic collection.