December 19: “Burn” by Dana Diehl

Good evening to you, Story366! Today has been Monday, all day, just five scant days before Christmas Eve and the first official off day of the break. All I had to accomplish today was to calculate grades for a couple of classes and had until 2 p.m., which of course meant that I turned them in some time shortly after 1:30. I’m getting better at this, as there would have been a time when I was getting those in around 1:55. I guess I’m evolving. Pretty soon, I won’t even have to get the auto-reminder from the university or the call from the administrative assistant to remind me.

In any case, grades are turned in and I officially can’t do any more work for this semester. Is my mind already thinking about making syllabi for next semester, working on Moon City Press projects, and sending out all those letters of recommendation that are going to be due soon? Sure. I can’t not forget about responsibilities. Still, I have had a chance to do some writing today, which is what I’ve been waiting for, and while I’ll not talk about that any more, it’s the best news I can relay on a cold, gray Monday like today. Write on.

For today’s post, I read from this awesome little book of stories by Dana Diehl entitled Our Dreams Might Align, out from the new-to-me Jellyfish Highway Press. A couple of months ago, I asked the FB public for recommendations of new collections out in 2016, books I hadn’t covered yet or maybe didn’t know about. I got a lot of great suggestions, some of which I’ve acquired and covered in Story366 already this year, some of which have so far evaded me. The one collection that garnered the most suggestions was Diehl’s, so I was quick to friend her and ask for her book. Her press obliged with the beautiful blue package you see in my hand below (with festive porch Christmas lights accompanying), and now that I’m done with that Bowling Green week, I was stoked to jump in and see what was inside.

I read the first four stories in Our Dreams Might Align, a few of which were of the short-short variety, a form I’m quite fond of. The third story in the book, “Burn,” what I’ll be writing about tonight, is a longer story, one of the longer ones in the book, one that I like a lot. Before I start analyzing, funny story: So early in the year, I used a method of segueing into my posts that involved me reading the story’s title and telling you, dear reader, what I thought the story would be about, based on that title. My post on “The Summer of Mopeds” by Courtney Eldridge is the best example, as it sounds like a fun story, one in which fourteen-year-old boys scoot around a small town, smoking and making out with girls, or even better, it could have been some Roman romp, a young American abroad, zipping up and down ancient streets à la Audrey Hepburn; man, was I wrong, as that story’s kind of about rape (as in, it’s about rape), making me more or less abandon the guess-what-this-is-about-based-on-the-title game. Today, though, when I started reading “Burn,” because my eyes are going, and also because of the font the designer used, I read the title as “Bum,” and consumed almost the entire thing believing the story was about a bum, which seems harsh (I’ll get to that). After, I looked over what I’d read, only then did I realize it said “Burn” and not “Bum.” That changed the story for me a bit, and I’m glad, as “Burn” is a much better title. But anyway, here’s a shot of that first page, of that title, so you can see what I’m talking about:

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What did I say? It doesn’t help that the font for the story titles are in a light gray, either. I’ll blame my dying vision more than anything, but am I right? That looks like “bum” a bit, doesn’t it? Eh?!

“Burn” is not really about a bum, though, nor would Diehl probably use that term, one almost as dated as “hobo,” especially not coming from her narrator, Danni. Danni is a young woman who lives in Pennsylvania with her fiancé, who is pregnant, who gets a call from her estranged sister, Lily, asking her to fly to Phoenix and pick her up from prison. Danni hasn’t spoken to Lily in years—Lily stole a boyfriend of hers once—so Danni had no idea that Lily was in prison. After some discussion, realizing Lily has no one else—their parents think Lily has been studying abroad—Danni agrees.

The story starts with the sisters leaving the prison, trying to figure out what’s next, settling in a hotel just south of Phoenix for the night. After that scene, a nice swatch of en medias res that puts us in the story, while at the same time, making us wonder how we get there, Diehl pulls back slightly earlier, to Danni arriving at the prison, having to get through security, having to watch her sister be processed out. Thinking about it, it’s an odd time structure for a story, to put things in that specific order, but for some reason it works. I think one of the reasons it is so effective is because of how it enhances the story’s suspense, keeps us asking questions, feeding us bits of answers while positing more illusions. What the story kind of feels like, moving forward in a straight line after that, is a mystery; Danni, in that hotel south of Phoenix, still has no idea what Lily was in prison for. Perhaps even more importantly, the sisters have yet to discuss that stolen boyfriend, something that’s kept them for speaking for quite a few years.

Along the way to the facts, to resolution, the women make some stops, most notably at an out-of-the-way souvenir shop, one so impossibly remote, Danni (and we readers) think that it’s a set-up, that she might be murdered. Or maybe she and Lily will be murdered together. It’s the kind of place that sells old used horseshoes and rattlesnake antidote, the kind where everything on the shelves is covered in at least a modicum of sand. Lily has a backroom meeting with a mysterious man at this story, Danni left to make chitchat with the checkout guy, who somehow deduces she is pregnant, even though she’s not showing at all. He notes that his wife has been pregnant eleven times and he’s developed a sense for such things. Lily eventually makes it out of the back room and as the girls leave the hut of a store, giving us most of the answers we’ve been waiting for.

I won’t go any further into “Burn,” other than to say there’s a nice blend of characterization, suspense, and technique here that makes this story feel special. Danni, as well as the other protagonists I came across in Our Dreams Might Align, seem to be peripheral characters, the stories focusing on important people in their lives, our heroes playing the straight role, having to evaluate for the reader, finding out something about themselves on the way. It’s an interesting approach to story, and Dana Diehl pulls it off every time, her combination of exacting detail and sparsity making for a rich prose texture. I’m so happy so many people recommended this book and I was able to snare a copy, as I really enjoyed everything I’ve read and hope to finish this, then wait for whatever’s next from this new talent.

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