December 2: “Potlatch” by Colin Fleming

Happy Friday to you, Story366! I hope you’ve had a good one. Tonight, Karen and I had a date, as there was a Parents Night Out at one of my son’s schools, which we take advantage of each and every time. A Parents Night Out, if you don’t know, is people from the school volunteering to watch kids on Friday night for super-cheap. Karen and I never miss it, as we never get to go out otherwise, not really, without paying a babysitting and cleaning our house for said sitter. On these excursions, we almost always go to a movie, for some reason, which is a lot of the date night eaten up by time we can’t talk or interact. Tonight we saw Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which is pretty good, but not as good as any of the Harry Potter films, not by a longshot. I’m not feeling like getting into that topic, though, as I’m just not.

It was also Artwalk tonight, which happens in Springfield every first Friday of the month. Springfield has an excellent little downtown and in that downtown an excellent artist community, one celebrated at this Artwalk event every month. The galleries—twenty of them or more—all stay open until ten or eleven and have special offers, demonstrations, and sometimes live music and/or free food and/or drink. Tonight, we picked up this painting by a friend of ours, poet and artist Chad Woody:

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Woody takes old landscape paintings (mostly reprints), the kind that populated living rooms, hallways, and rec rooms in the Eisenhower era, real Robert Wood-type stuff, and paints in monsters and robots. Before the movie, we just about had one picked out, but then were going to be late, so we came back after only to find my favorite had been sold. This one that we bought hadn’t been on display yet, though, and I like it even more, as it has a robot and a monster, the only one with this combination. Anyway, we think they’re brilliant and we’re happy to have one and I can see it right now on the wall in front of me.

I also read from Colin Fleming‘s collection The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe, out from Dzanc, stories that I very much enjoyed. The stories are linked thematically, most of them about the end of the relationships and how characters deal with the grief that comes after, but that’s only one way to describe Fleming’s work. I’ll also note that his stories are full of abstraction, magical realism, and absurdity, and don’t really feature a lot of the elements of traditional stories like protagonist-vs.-antagonist conflicts, tension-building arcs, or even audience-satisfying resolutions. Fleming starts his stories with a conceit, which is always pretty interesting, be it a guy who watches the same TV program in the middle of the night, every night, or a Nerf ping pong (I had that game) match, then takes it to a different plane of reality. His characters going on journeys, often of introspection and interior monologue, that warp the sense of plot and other expectations. Each one I read—and they’re short, so I read five or six—was unique and interesting and challenging. A couple, I didn’t have a clue what was going on, but I liked the, anyway, because they were unlike anything I’d read.

Because it’s hard to choose a story to talk about (and again, I wouldn’t know what to say about a couple of them), I’m choosing the last story in the collection, “Potlatch,” which is just over two pages long. It’s a stylized monologue featuring a guy talking to his overworked and now-disfunctional printer. This guy has typed and printed over a million words on this printer and now it’s failing him, ready to move on to the printer afterlife. As printers are the kind of gadget, like VCRs and knife-sharpeners, that cost more to fix than replace, it’s time for this printer and the speaker to part. The only problem is, the guy’s talking to the printer like it’s a living thing, a buddy of his, some ultra-personification. The guy’s even agreed to try and hook it up with the old microwave, who is apparently an attractive she-microwave, a fact I get from context.

In any case, we eventually get to the title word, “potlatch,” which I didn’t know before reading this story—see, short stories teach us as well as entertain us!—and a potlatch is the notion of giving something meaningful away to someone who needs it more than you do. Once, I gave my oldest son’s first pair of shoes away to a shoe drive and kind of regretted it—that’s the kind of thing a parent is supposed to keep—but always feel better when I picture some baby whose parents couldn’t afford shoes having those shoes. So it’s that. How does this beloved printer become a potlatch? Well, I’ve got to leave something for you to discover here, so I won’t reveal that. Let’s just say, however, that promises are made for the printer to make its journey with that swinging single microwave oven.

“Potlatch,” as absurd and funny and outlandish as it sounds, isn’t the kind of non-traditional story that is found in most of The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe, as a man making a pledge of friendship and regret to his printer (key thing to ponder: why someone writes a million words of anything) is actually more concrete and realistic than most of what Colin Fleming presents to us. His stories are unpredictable, funny, and freshly structured. This is a cool book, one I had fun reading.

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