What’s going on, Story366? Today is Monday of the last day of classes of the semester. I have to teach on Wednesday, have a couple of finals to give out the next Wednesday, and bam! Full holiday mode starts. I promised my family I’d put the Christmas lights up this past weekend and that didn’t happen. My youngest, almost four, has fully embraced Christmas for the first time and has spent the last couple of weeks yelling, “Look at these!” at every single house that we pass that has their lights up. Last night, we drove across town and he said, “Look at these!” at least six hundred times. The real kicker is that I have to reply each and every time, “Oh, yeah!” or “Those are great!” or he’ll repeat it louder and angrier until I acknowledge every string of lights strung across eaves, wrapped around a bush, or dangling from a railing. So far, the notion that we, too, could have Christmas lights up at our house has somehow evaded him, that I’ve been able to live down the fact that I’ve not done my duty as dad and homeowner and celebrant. Heck, we’d drive three or four-block stretches where we didn’t see any lights up and I’d note, “I guess this is Scrooge Alley,” my own home the exact same cold corner of the office where Bob Cratchit is freezing his ass off. In short, I don’t have classes tomorrow. I need to get those lights up.
For today’s post, I sampled from Suzanne Greenberg‘s collection Speed-Walk and Other Stories, which won a Drue Heinz Literature Prize from the University of Pittsburgh Press. I read the first three stories of the book, finding a lot of thematic similarities between the pieces. Greenberg seems to place people at major crossroads. Or maybe they’re just at a steady point and are suddenly finding themselves in unenviable situations, situations that not only provide a sudden conflict and plot, but also reveal as much about their characters as any descriptions could. The first and title story, “Speed-Walk,” sets a recent widower on a speed-walking date, a date that turns into him running an errand for the woman’s family when he’s really not ready for any of it. The next, “The Yes Button,” places its protagonist, a long-absent father, on a reunion trip to find his young daughters have grown into really vapid young women, vapid young women who assume he’s visiting them because he’s dying. The third piece, “The Queen of Laundry,” perhaps best embodies what Greenberg does, plus I like it the most, so here we go.
“The Queen of Laundry” is about a woman, approaching middle age, who is dealing with a lot of different stuff. Her mother has come to visit and is a health guru, eating pure and whole but inedible food, swimming miles every day, never letting up on how her daughter should be doing the same. She’s also antagonistic toward Carmen, our hero’s longtime housekeeper, the titular Queen of Laundry. Our protagonist is also a divorcee and has a junior high-aged daughter, one she only sees every other week. To grasp, legally, at a few moments of time with her daughter during off weeks, she volunteers at the school library, sees her daughter as she checks out her weekly book. Her therapist—she’s clinically depressed—isn’t taking her side on any of this, acting as a second mother, the last thing she needs in the entire world.
Really, that’s the gist of “The Queen of Laundry,” a realistic woman going through some pretty realistic life hurdles. Yes, they’re happening all at once, and yes, a lot of these things have been brewing for a while, building up. But for the most part, this woman, and the two guys in the first two stories, are just facing life. What makes Greenberg’s work so memorable, however, is a wicked combination of deadpan tone and a constant barrage of distinct details. In terms of the former, there’s a real minimalist quality to the voices here, characters taking things as they come, accepting their fates, noting as strange, unwelcome occurrences pile up in their lives. As for the latter, Greenberg’s just a good creative writer, really bringing to life these average people with constant detailing. In “The Queen of Laundry,” Carmen never knows what to do with the protagonist’s mother’s wetsuit, which she strips off every day, perplexing even the laundry queen, who almost takes an iron to it for lack of a better plan. Those moments with her daughter at the library come down to a brief few seconds a week where her hand can brush against her daughter’s as she hands her her book. Moments like these aren’t hard to come by and what make Greenberg’s stories so worth reading.
I think Speed-Walk might be the last Drue Heinz winner I have after Pitt sent me a whole box of them a couple of months ago, eager to have me read them—I’ve had the pleasure of obliging them. Suzanne Greenberg is just another of the talented authors they’ve exposed me to and this collection is just another gift they’ve given to us story-fiends.