October 27: “Three Denials” by Christian TeBordo

Hello, Story366! How are you today? Obviously, we’re all doing well, celebrating a Cubs World Series victory for the first time in seventy-one years. I know they haven’t won the Series yet or anything, but it’s nice to get that first one out of the way. My theory is, it’ll lead to more victories, three, I’m hoping, and a World Series crown. On a travel day, it’s nice to think about such things, with so much time to think about things, no game to anticipate or fret over. Kind of a relief, but in in other ways, I wish they could just play all seven games, sixty-three innings, in a row, kind of like binge-watching a show on Netflix. I’d spend a weekend doing that.

Karen and I and the boys are heading to Joplin right now—I’m typing on my lap—to read at Missouri Southern State University, where our good friend and former student and Mid-American Review Poetry Editor, Brad Modlin, just stated a post as an assistant professor. Karen is on her No More Milk book tour and I’m just tagging along, a roadie, if you will, making sure her mic is the right height and there is exactly one blue M&M in her dish. Should be a fun night.

For today’s post, I read from Christian TeBordo’s collection, The Awful Possibilities, out from Featherproof Books. TeBordo’s stories are what I would categorize as nontraditional, as his characters don’t engage in traditional conflicts, meet traditional people, or more importantly, engage with these entities in a traditional way. The stories are ephemeral, yet often in the moment, small encounters becoming long scenes, with complex dialogue and often no resolutions. TeBordo’s narrators are frustrated by their predicaments, their lots in life, and equally frustrated by the people who cause them. What this is all amounts to are fascinating, intense stories that move deliberately, but with great effect.

The best example of this is “Three Denials,” a story about a guy living in an apartment complex with his wife. He’s also a guy who likes to smoke a lot. That’s a pretty weird description of a story, but “Three Denials” is a pretty weird story. Cut into three parts, each composed of its own narrative, the story tracks our guy first in his apartment, arguing with his wife about their wedding vows, about whether or not she’s his older self—this third is subtitled “My wife denies being my older self.” They bicker and it goes round and round, the narrator either playing a game with her or he’s really having trouble understanding basic logic. By the end, we find out his wife is tied up, for whatever reason, and this two-page section ends. The next denial, “The neighbor denies the very shit on my shoes.” is about an encounter with his pretty, epileptic neighbor lady and her daughter in the stairwell when our protagonist steps out for a smoke. Again, the dialogue is terse and circular, not getting very far. One thing I soon grasped about “Three Denials” is it’s the journey that counts, not the destination.

By the time TeBordo reaches the third denial, “Sweet William, don’t even bother denying it.” we have a pretty keen sense of what the author is going for, who this narrator is. The whole time he’d been talking to the woman and her daughter in the stairwell, we assume his wife was still tied up inside their apartment—he mentions several times how he has to get going, that his wife is being very patient. The third act’s encounter, Sweet William, is a guy who could be anything and nothing, who hangs around the complex, smoking. This time around, our protagonist is out to bum a cigarette and he and Sweet William have a long, complicated, and bizarre conversation. Our guy ends up getting his smokes, but again, without revealing much more about how that happens, I’ll repeat: It’s not about the destination; it’s about the journey.

All of the stories in Christian TeBordo’s The Awful Possibilities are challenging in the way that “Three Denials” tends to be, not offering much in terms of direct plot or narrative arc, not in the Freitag’s Pyramid sense, anyway. At the start of this post, I used the word “nontraditional” to describe TeBordo’s work, and thinking on that more, I think that’s accurate. I like “challenging” just as much as a moniker, though, and I mean that in the best of ways. TeBordo bucks common narrative, scene, and syntax to present an entirely unique style. That’s not just for the collection as a whole, either: Each story in this book seems like it could have been written by a different author. Somehow, though, no cohesion is lost, because the book—at least the five stories I read—make sense together, like a tight anthology penned by an array of voices. Not so, though, as it’s all this one guy, this Christian TeBordo. A pretty impressive feat.