December 17, 2016: “Visitations” by Tina May Hall

Greetings to you, Story366! Today, Springfield, Missouri’s roads have turned to glass, as the bad weather that’s buried most of the country in snow and sub-zero temperatures has left us here in the Show-Me State on a sheet of ice. I just came from the grocery store, which is about a mile from my house, and it took over twenty minutes to drive home. Everyone is going ten miles an hour or less—or is in a ditch or crashed into a tree—and even at that speed, I almost fishtailed twice, once into a truck, once into a gas station.

This preceding paragraph proves two things: 1) It was a slow day and I started my post today with a weather report; and 2) I have lost my Chicago driving skills. It’s true. The aggressive, winter-ready driver that I am during the summers when I’m home, the one who will cross three lanes at a time on the Dan Ryan or take hairpin turns at full speed is gone, the meek, five-miles-per-hour guy who lives in Missouri has taken over. It’s sad. I’ve come to rather like the Springfield area, as it’s a beautiful place (especially in the wooded, hilly parts outside of town) and people here are genuine and nice. Can they drive? Well, they can here, in Springfield traffic, when there’s no snow or ice. Would they all die in fiery wrecks in a place like Chicago or LA or the the most craziest fucking driving place on earth, Boston? Without question. When I head up to Illinois for my beer vendor training at Wrigley every spring, it takes me a full day or two to reassimilate to how it’s done. Today, if you plucked me out of here with a helicopter, dropped me in the middle of rush hour traffic, downtown, at the height of Christmas season? At best, I severely dent my car and many others before T-boning something, the madness halted. At worst, I’d kill several people with my trepidatious hesitations and headless-chicken panic. Tonight, for the good of all, I stay indoors.

I continue my third Bowling Green Creative Writing Program Alum Week of the year with a person with whom I was actually in workshop, the first such person I’ve covered here on Story366, Tina May Hall. Today I read a good hunk of her collection, The Physics of Imaginary Objects, out from the University of Pittsburgh Press as a winner of the Drue Heinz Literary Prize. Tina was one class ahead of me in the program, so we overlapped by one year, and I had the pleasure of taking two workshops with her. The other day, I mentioned how I was intimidated by the talent of my workshop peers when I arrived in BG, one student in particular, and that student was Tina. From the first time I read her work, it was clear that she was not only supremely talented, but she was writing stories unlike any I’d ever read before, let alone faced the challenge of actually workshopping. How could I, some goofy kid who wrote goofy stories, have anything to say about the poetic and visionary minimalism that was Tina Hall? How could I put up one of my my stories the same week she was putting up one of hers, our classmates reading them side by side? Well, I managed, because I was too naive at that time to see the gap between her work and mine. Even so, I was well aware of how mature and advanced her stories were—a couple of which, in hyper-revised form, appear here—when I was just figuring out what a story was. Maybe I’m being harsh on myself for the purpose of embellishing my point, but that point is that I got a chance to read Tina May Hall’s stories before most people did and even then, in 1995, I knew they were really, really good.

It was no real surprise to me, then, to hear that she’d won the Drue Heinz, just like I wasn’t surprised today, when I revisited her work for the first time in ages, and saw how well her unique style holds up. Many of her stories are short, told in four or five pages of Cooverlike vignettes, Hall jumping from storyline to storyline and back again. This technique affords her work a poetic, frenetic feel, her plots often puzzles to work together, the whole picture coming into view by story’s end. A reader could easily mistake a piece like “Erratum: Insert ‘R’ in ‘Trangressors'” for a prose poem, as in effect, that’s what it is. And I could say that for a lot of stories in this collection. Hall does not waste a word, understands syntax better than anyone, and she does not shy from letting imagery take over a narrative. Her work is truly unlike anything I’ve ever read, twenty years ago or now.

All that said, “Visitations,” today’s focus, is one of the more narrative stories in the collection, as events happen sequentially, there’s a clear protagonist facing a conflict, and many more basic elements of story are more prevalent than in most of Hall’s work. “Visitations” is about a young woman who is pregnant and living in her house in the woods, her live-in lover and her baby’s father out of town for a lengthy spell for work. Just as Paul, the boyfriend, leaves, the horrible stench of death falls upon the house, some sort of animal dying somewhere on the property. Along with trying to retain the household, keep the baby healthy, and recover from neverending morning sickness, our protagonist is put in charge of dealing with this death smell.

A reader of short fiction such as myself longs to cast metaphor upon this situation, as the boyfriend’s absence coincides with the sudden arrival of this awful smell, and I couldn’t help but think that the two were related. Does the smell represent her loneliness? Is it a harbinger of doom for Paul? Or maybe, more simply, the baby’s going to die, death’s evil hand preceded by its foul odor.

Never mind all that, though, as all of this was in the back of my head, where such thoughts should live on a first read. Hall keeps the story moving, keeps our mind busy. Paul’s departure seems to last forever and our protagonist fills the time by eating lots of meat (her pregnancy craving is animal flesh, and lots of it), trying to solve the problem of the death smell, and filling us in on backstory. As it turns out, our hero was pregnant once before, by a lumberjacking then-lover, losing the baby before she knew she was going to have it. She mourned the lost baby, and so did the lumberjack, who grieved by cutting enough fire wood for the whole winter, all at once, then leaving our protagonist forever. This was all, by the way, in the same house in the woods that the present story—with Paul and the stink and the new baby—is taking place in. So, maybe the smell is a ghost? Maybe it’s the decomposing lumberjack, who didn’t leave but got stuck in the chimney, like Phoebe Cates’ father in Gremlins? And hey, how long is Paul going to be in Phoenix on business, anyway?

I won’t answer any of those questions here, as that would be giving too much away. Given that aforementioned backstory, Hall has set in the reader’s mind that Paul might not return and this baby might not be okay and the smell that’s coming from the walls might be something worse than awful, worse than the dead squirrel everyone suspects it is. What happens? You’ll have to read to find out for yourself.

As noted earlier, before Tina May Hall, I’ve never covered anyone on Story366 that I took a workshop with. Alan Heathcock came in the year after me, but I’ve already read his entire collection, Volt, when it came out, rendering it ineligible for this project. So, nice to revisit this writer’s stories in book form instead of printout, no pen in hand to make annotations, nothing to turn in for homework. Instead, I got to sit back and enjoy The Physics of Imaginary Objects, a wonderful book by a gifted writer. So glad for her success—it was always obviously on its way.