December 6: “A Place to Hide” by Kwame Dawes

What’s going on, Story366? Glad to be writing to you today on this St. Nicholas Day! Yay! If you’re Catholic, you probably know what St. Nicholas Day is, that’s it’s kind of pre-Christmas, a day when you’re supposed to hang a big stocking from a bedpost and then wake up to have it filled with candy and such from St. Nicholas, who is the historical basis of Santa Claus (whom it’s possible you know, even if you’re not Catholic). You only get candy if you’re good, however, as if you’re bad, you can get coal and/or wood. I was a good little boy—in fact, sadly, kind of a mama’s boy, a suck-up, and a grade-grubber all rolled into one—so I always got lots of candy. However, even though I was never in trouble, never talked back, and even spent like a year or so saying a rosary every night (which probably makes it possible for me to blog on short stories every day), I still got that one stick of pine or one tiny briquette of Kingsford in my stocking, my parents letting me know that they were paying attention, using my ingrained Catholic guilt to make me suck up and grade grub even more. Before long, I was manipulating the system myself, though, so don’t feel sorry for me: When I was ten, I mentioned to my mom,—you know, in case she ran into St. Nicholas—that candy wasn’t very good for me and that toys were better and that I really wanted a Cobra H.I.S.S. Tank. You know what? I got a frickin’ Cobra H.I.S.S. Tank rammed inside a giant Christmas stocking that St. Nicholas Day. So, take that, Mom. Where’d I learn to manipulate? From you. I learned it by watching you.

The real shame in all this is that Karen and I pretty much forgot about St. Nicholas Day this year, again, so instead of putting their socks up last night, our kids will be putting them up tonight. No harm, no foul—tomorrow’s the last day of classes, Karen and I are both sick, it’s cold outside, and well, our heathen children don’t know the difference (I’d venture to say this has happened on the wrong night more than it’s happened on the right). Plus, me and the little one put up the Christmas lights today (see yesterday’s post), despite it being a day before the last day of classes, Karen and I sick, it being cold outside, etc. So, we’re not bad parents. We just won’t win any trophies, unless they say “Participant” on the base. And we’re okay with that.

Today, I read a few stories from Kwame Dawes‘ short story collection A Place to Hide, out from Peepal Tree Press, which is a cool little press I didn’t know before today, one that focuses mainly on Caribbean literature. Dawes was born in Ghana but move to Jamaica as a kid. He’s also primarily a poet, the author of multiple collections of poems, as well as some memoir, but poets can certainly write fiction, too, and Dawes is proof of that. Of the three pieces I read, I like the title story best, so let’s go with that.

“A Place to Hide” is about this woman, Sarah, who lives in the hills above Kingston. The first few pages of the story chronicle Sarah—with incredibly close psychic distance—as she prepares herself for bed, undressing, showering, dressing, etc., her intimate thoughts revealed as Dawes catches her at this private, but safe, moment. I got the idea that Sarah was at peace, as that’s what you get when someone takes a shower, thinks about stuff, and goes to bed.

That ends, however—it’s a short story, after all—when she hears a rock against the window grill and her neighbors clamoring about what the noise is. As it turns out, it’s Sarah’s ex-lover, Jacob, standing out in the rain, wanting to come into Sarah’s bedroom. Sarah doesn’t want to let him in, but of course, we’ve seen this scene in movies and TV before and he’s not going to go away, let the neighbors sleep, until she does (or call the cops, which she’s not doing) so she lets him in.

From there, the story becomes a head game, a seduction, as Jacob, for lack of a more nuanced motivation, wants to get laid. He’s there, dripping, pathetic, apologetic for causing their relationship to end by cheating on Sarah with another woman. Basically, he’s doing that pathetic man-thing where they say anything they can think of, steer the conversation in any direction they can, in the hopes of acquiring sex. One minute, he’s apologetic for not talking to her for a month, for not apologizing, the next minute, he’s accusing her of being cold, not reaching out to him, accusing her of driving him into the other woman’s arms. He’s a bastard, this much is clear, and of course, Sarah should kick him out, be it through the window, out the door, or through a drain.

Yet, that’s the conflict of the story: A battle of wills. Sarah, while she might have reached a good place, is facing what every break-up victim wants from their ex: Reconciliation, their hat in hand. I’ve personally been broken up with a bunch of times, in really odd, horrible ways, and many of those experiences devastated me. How many times if, a month later, those women showed up at my place in the middle of the night, begging forgiveness, would I have taken them back? I can say, without hesitation, every single time. What Dawes captures is vulnerability under fire. Sarah could very easily throw her arms around Jacob, take him back, and have passionate make-up sex. Where would she be in the morning, however? Maybe Jacob’s there, wanting to continue the relationship again, his affair behind them. Maybe he’s gone by then, or perhaps he leaves as soon as he gets off, laughs, leaves Sarah even lower than he had the first time. One step forward, a hundred steps back.

I’m not going to tell you in this post what happens, what Sarah decides, as that would spoil the entire plot of the story. I will say, however, that I admire what Dawes does with this existential moment, a time when Sarah can either claim a piece of herself or claim what her heart desires. Dawes is pretty direct, too, in this back-and-forth, Jacob a pure scoundrel, knowing Sarah’s weaknesses (she’s super-sensitive about what she perceives to be a large nose), pitting her emotions against her sensibilities. It’s basic patriarchal, misogynist bullshit, but that kind of behavior persists because it works. Dawes is adept at fictionalizing one such case. I like “A Place to Hide.” It’s intense. It seems true. And it’s unrelenting.

I’ve not read any of Kwame Dawes’ work before but now I have, venturing into A Place to Hide. It’s an intense collection—the other stories had similarly high stakes. Dawes’ website dubs him as the busiest man in literature, and looking around his site, I believe it. On top of teaching at Nebraska and running Prairie Schooner and the literary arm of the press there, he also does the poetry for Peepal Tree and has four books and four anthologies coming out this year. I like to think of myself as one of the busier people in literature, teaching, editing, blogging, etc., but I’ll have to tip my cap to Dawes. I preach literary citizenship all the time, and today’s author might just be the Mayor of Litberg. Glad he’s out there.