Friday comes to us again, Story366! Last Friday, I made a thing about how I was using the term “TGIF” for the first time in my life, ever, after the nightmarish experience of the election and whathaveyou-awful emotions that followed. I’m not quite at that stage this week, where I’m using silly acronyms after a lifelong boycott, but I do have to say, as tonight begins a nine-day break from teaching, I’m thrilled it’s Friday. To kick off this extended turkey extravaganza, I’m in a motel in Branson, Missouri, as a guest speaker at the Ozarks Writers League Conference. Tonight, there was a banquet—a turkey feast from our friends at the Golden Corral—and a contest awards ceremony for the group. Tomorrow I speak on “Writing Dynamic Fiction and the Editing Process,” which seems like something I could do, then meet with some writers to critique their manuscripts. There’s a meatloaf luncheon somewhere in the middle of all that, so all in all, I’m pretty stoked. The fact that everyone I met has been ridiculously nice also has me looking forward to the event.
Tonight, though, I was able to fight off the rigors of the week and the call of the trytophan to read from Edward Falco‘s collection Sabbath Night in the Church of the Piranha, out from Unbridled Books. I’ve read Falco’s stories many times before, in journals, in Best American Short Stories, and I know I’ve had the pleasure of meeting him a couple of times at AWP events, over the course of the years. Nice guy, great writer. I didn’t have to read very far (but did, anyway) to find my story for today, the title piece, which I absolutely adore.
“Sabbath Night in the Church of the Piranha” takes place on the Sabbath, at night, in the Church of the Piranha, of course. The story is about Matt Penrose, this middle-aged divorced inventor whose estranged sixteen-year-old son Chris has come to live with him again after his mother couldn’t stand him any more. Matt and Chris haven’t talked too much more since Chris’ return, but at the outset of the story, have indeed started talking, mostly in the form of arguing. Our tale begins with a battle over nomenclature, as Chris insists on calling Matt “Penrose,” while also insisting that Matt call him “Master,” or as a compromise, “M.” What’s this kid the master of? He’s Master of Fire and Air, one of the leaders of the Church of the Piranha, a religion he made up with his girlfriend, Patty, who is Master of Earth and Water. The story takes place on the sabbath, because Chris said so, when Chris and his friends, or followers, will sit in Matt’s basement, light candles, burn incense, and chant. Matt just wants Chris to call him “Dad” and to not have to call his delinquent son “Master,” which provides a conflict in the story, a conflict that’s at the core of what’s wrong with their relationship.
What Matt is even more worried about is that the sabbath is falling on a night that his parents are coming over, parents that include a super-strict, judgmental, and abusive mother, Marilyn, who is grown overweight to the point of handicap. Matt has as many issues with Marilyn as he does with Chris and knows that if Marilyn sees Chris, witnesses this sabbath ceremony, she is going to lose her shit. Matt bargains with Chris to keep the ceremony in the basement, to be done by eleven, as until then, he can keep his parents out for dinner and a movie. Chris acquiesces, but only if Patty can stay overnight, and Matt agrees, insisting Patty sleep in the basement. Chris agrees.
Still, this is a short story, so you just get the feeling like this isn’t going to go Matt’s way. Of course it’s not. Sure enough, Matt gets home with his parents—who are spending the night—gets them settled in their room—across from Chris’—and gets to go to bed (not before happening upon a nude Patty in the basement while doing his nightly shutdown) in relative peace.
That peace is tragically interrupted by screaming at 5 a.m. and Matt runs into his parents’ guest room to find the bed on fire and his father and nude son trying to put out the flames. One of Matt’s inventions—wires that send an electric pulse across sheets to get rid of bedbugs—has caught on fire (Marilyn plugged it in for some reason). As soon as the men put out the flames, there’s more screaming, coming from Patty, who is still nude, being dragged out of Chris’ bed by a furious Marilyn, who cannot comprehend how this is happening, her teenage grandson copulating under Matt’s roof, Matt too impotent to do a thing about it.
That’s as far as I’ll go, plotwise, as there’s still more of this to sort out, more things that happen (i.e, go wrong). Such a great premise, such a great delivery. But “Sabbath Night in the Church of the Piranha” has so many other things going for it than this cacophony of circumstances. The story is told primarily in scene, people yelling at each other, trying to make themselves heard, assuming that the louder their voice, the more right they’ll appear. I like how this character, Matt Penrose, is being pulled in two directions, from opposing generations, neither of which holds an ounce of respect for him. I really like how creative Falco is with Chris, that he’s not just the stock brooding teenager, but an industrious and confident kid who starts his own religion, who has a credo to ballyhoo in front of his protests. I especially admire the timing of this story, the structure, the pace, how the whole piece is just this intense set-up with the names and then the delicate infrastructure of Matt’s plan unraveling into a frantic, unholy mess. We get exactly what we need, when we need it, Falco letting his masterfully crafted characters loose, letting them fulfill the roles they were created to fulfill. One of my favorites stories I’ve read in a while.
The family is turning in here—yeah, I brought them with me to Branson—and I think I’m hitting it soon, too, big day at the Ozarks Writers League Conference tomorrow. So glad I got to spend the evening with Edward Falco and his impressive collection Sabbath Night in the Church of the Piranha. Tremendous stuff, nothing less than what I’ve come to expect from this master.