November 6: “The Atheist of Dekalb Street” by Christopher DeWan

Hello there, Story366! As I was at Cub Scout camp with my boys yesterday, I actually didn’t read and post on a story for the first time in several months; I finished an extra post on Friday—on Wendy Brenner—and scheduled it ahead of time, and that worked out, streak intact. So, cool. Still, going a whole day without reading anything or writing about it is rare this year and hasn’t happened since I went to the same camp this past summer, for four days. I got a post up every day, but it’s pretty strange, not reading. I could have brought a book with me, but nah, camp is exhausting, especially since Karen was in Bowling Green, reading at the Winter Wheat Festival, meaning I had to bring our three-year-old with me. Camp is normally exhausting, but having to keep tabs on an ambitious and overanxious toddler sapped me dry, and I knew it would, so I didn’t even bother bringing a book. I find it a moral victory that none of us were eaten by a bear (they have black bears living near this camp) or bitten by a rattlesnake (which live nowhere near the camp whatsoever). Big time victory, I think.

We packed up early this morning, frost on the windshield of the car, our tent, and our nose, and were back in Springfield by eight—with the time change—then filled our faces at IHOP before coming home, showering, and crashing. Eventually, we made something of ourselves, getting the gear put away for the winter, then washing everything we took to camp—clothes, sleeping bags, comforters—before bringing it in the house. Again, those are great victories, as I felt like putting away camping stuff—including drying and folding the tent—as much as I wanted to get eaten by a bear.

By the time Karen got home at nine-thirty tonight, I’d found time to read from Christopher DeWan‘s fantastic collection of short-short stories, Hoopty Time Machines: Fairy Tales for Grown-Ups, out from Atticus Books. I’d seen DeWan’s work in journals before, but was glad to get a bunch of them together (i.e., a short story collection) in one place. DeWan’s tales range from one sentence long on the short end to six pages on the long side, and as I’ve said every time I’ve reviewed a book of shorts, it’s really hard to pinpoint a single piece to write on. Still, since I have to, I’m picking, so for today, I’ll write about “The Atheist of Dekalb Street.”

There’s a couple of things that attract me to this piece, including one dumb one: One of my sisters and a couple of my brothers went to college at Northern Illinois University, in corn-centric DeKalb, Illinois, and I have some fond early memories of visiting them there (where I’ve not been back since … like thirty-five years later). I also have a story of my own about an atheist, “The Atheist Reconsiders,” and it’s one of my favorite stories I’ve ever written and published. And lastly, well, it’s just a good story.

“The Atheist of Dekalb Street” is about this kid who lives in a neighborhood in a mostly Catholic town, one split in three ways between the Polish parish, the Italian Parish, and the Irish Parish. Things are pretty simple when everyone is Catholic and divided by their nationality (this is eerily similar to the parish set-up in my hometown, Calumet City, Illinois, something else that attracted me to this piece). What’s confusing our narrator—again without a name, at least my fifth-straight—is how there could be an atheist living on Dekalb Street, when everybody else in town is Catholic. What’s more is that this atheist has a stigmata, meaning her hands and feet and side are bleeding, holes right through them as if she’s been pounded to the cross herself. Why the atheist, in this town of Catholics? Our narrator sets himself on finding out.

The boy is struck by the atheist, by her straight-forwardness, by her whit, and by her willingness to show him her wounds. Sure enough, the atheist has a stigmata, and almost immediately, he sets out on a course to heal her. He cleans her wounds and bathes her, but it’s not until he brings her holy water to anoint her does she allow him full access to her, as a patient and as a person. What does this mean, I asked myself, the only atheist in town carrying the mark of the crucified Christ figure?

As this is a short, merely three pages long, I’ll not reveal anything else about the plot;  I will say, though, that Catholics will be Catholics, and our boy is no different, just trying to do for a friend. I’m impressed with how much DeWan packs into those pages. He builds a character, a relationship, and tension, all within about a page, and overall, it’s just a clever, interesting, and well wrought story.

I love Christopher DeWan’s book, and as its subtitle suggests, there are some fairy tales to be found inside, fairy tales falling under various definitions of the genre. Hoopty Time Machines is one of the best short-short collections I’ve read this year, ranking up their with Jac Jemc’s  A Different Bed Every Time and Amelia Gray’s Gutshot. He’s the real deal: Check this book out.