November 17: “The Expense of a View” by Polly Buckingham

Hello, Story366! Today has been an interesting day. Really, it started off as a pretty average day, a regular Thursday. Then this happened: I walked over to my son’s school to pick him up, then walked home, and as we approached our house, I noticed I could see my house clearly from the street. That was weird, clearly different, off. Then I noticed the ornamental cherry tree in the front yard had toppled over. We had two trees in the front, that cherry tree and a dogwood, one on each side of the front walk, and the cherry tree was leaning down toward the dogwood. And we were lucky. Had it fallen the opposite way, it would have crushed my neighbor’s car. Had it fallen toward the street (down a little embankment), it may have hurt someone, as in seriously. Had it fallen into our house? Well, that would have been another problem altogether. Here’s what it looks like from the street:

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Tomorrow, a tree company is coming to give us an estimate on cutting it up and taking away the wood. They start at $150, and since we have a small, mostly dead tree (oh, yeah, that thing had been rotting from some kind of tree disease for a couple of years), we’re hoping it’s not overwhelming (or, maybe one of my kids has always wanted a tree removal for Christmas). We have a figure in mind, and if the estimate goes over that figure, I get out the chainsaw I got for Father’s Day last year and rip that thing up myself; I have a bad history with yard tools, though, almost taking off a couple of fingers with the hedge trimmer a couple years back. I’m hoping the estimate is under that figure, as then my weekend and nine-day Thanksgiving Break starts off a lot more easily. I’ll keep you posted.

Right after all this went down, I went outside, sat on that stoop, waited for my little one’s bus, and read from Polly Buckingham‘s The Expense of a View, out from the University of North Texas Press as the latest winner of their Katherine Anne Porter Prize. I read a few stories from the collection and found a lot of commonality between them. All of the stories focused on protagonists who were alone, living in mostly isolated areas (seemingly the South), at turning points in their lives. They seem like they’re nearing middle age, but perhaps have just a breath’s worth of youth left in them; it’s like they’re at crossroads, deciding how they want to enter the second half of their lives. Buckingham isn’t direct about any of this, but it seems like they are all ready to either make a go at something better or curl up and accept the kind of sadness that comes from a life of bad decisions and missed opportunities. I like that as a theme for a collection, and while I’m not sure if all of the stories in Buckingham’s book are like this, that’s the vibe I’m feeling three stories in.

No story better represents all this than the title story, “The Expense of a View.” This story opens with its protagonist, Gracie, greeting her boyfriend and lover, Lang, at the door. Lang has brought flowers and is ready to spend the night with her, doing what they’ve been doing for the last two years. Gracie, however, has other plans, as she’s chosen this night to break it off with Lang, who is confused and saddened. Gracie lets him stay the night, lets him hold her tight (he might sob a little), which doesn’t make it any easier to make him leave in the morning. So, a pretty intense, though quiet opening scene for a story.

What’s really interesting about all this, I realized by the story’s end, is how we never know why Gracie breaks it off with Lang. Lang seems nice, flowers, sentimentality, a gentleness, so we can only speculate. A lot of my suspicion stems from what I’ve said about the theme, that Gracie is at a point in her life where she’s either going to pursue some dream, make a move for something better, or fall back and settle for the familiar, the simple. Lang is familiar and simple, but for whatever reason, that’s not what Gracie is quite ready to embrace. She doesn’t have a plan, but she knows that whatever it is, it won’t include Lang, this town. She’s moved on before, two years here, two years there, so it’s likely she’s just come upon her two-year itch. In that regard, Lang, this town, this house, this existence, never had a chance.

The rest of the story, Gracie seems to be in a holding pattern, trying to move on from Lang, attempting to regain traction. She meets a guy out on the street in town who appears to be mentally handicapped, who in one late scene in the story is beaten, nearly to death, by some bullies. Gracie friends him, helps him recover. She also meets a man, casually, who invites her over to his place to smoke a little grass, an invitation she accepts, one that leads to her spending the night—perhaps only after she feels it’s not in her interest to say no. Lang is still calling her, stopping by, not giving in. Her cat, Edith Piaf, keeps dumping over her water dish.

“The Expense of a View” is a subtle story, something I’d even call minimalism, Gracie a quiet character whose actions speak more than her words, more than any internal monologue or exposition provided by Buckingham. Gracie is a woman who does things and we as readers can only guess as to why. There isn’t any explanatory backstory, either, something that clearly outlines why she can’t get close to people, why she can’t stay in one place, what’s turned her into this vagabond. Instead, we enjoy one true sentence after another in this story, a refreshing style for 2016, not quite Hemingway, not quite Carver, but inspired by each, with a modern twist, a voice all of Buckingham’s own.

I enjoyed the stories in The Expense of a View and am pleased to discover Polly Buckingham and her work for the first time.

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