December 21: “Compression Scars” by Kellie Wells

Hey there, Story366! Today is the Winter Solstice, which means it got dark around two in the afternoon, the sun is pouting off somewhere really far away from us, and all kinds of new and fancy religions are putting their feast days this week so they are not revealed as pagans for too much celebrating. Roman Emperor Constantine first had Christmas, for example, on December 25 in 336 A.D., prompting Pope Julius I to say, yeah, sure, let’s make Jesus’ birthday on 12/25, just to cut down on the beheadings and such. My family personally benefitted from today’s sunlessness via a Winter Solstice party, where the hosts made a couple bûche de noël and some glogg, which is coincidentally what I was going to make for dinner, anyway, but am glad we had a rotisserie chicken from Walmart instead—you never want too much bûche at this time of the year.

My childhood dog and best bud ever, Corky, was also born on this day in 1982. He would have been thirty-four years old today. Happy birthday, old friend.

For today’s post, I read from Kellie Wells‘ collection Compression Scars, out from the University of Georgia Press as a winner of their Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. I’ve read Wells’ work quite often in the past, always admiring it, but never read it in book form until today. I am so glad that I found a copy of this collection last week, as I supremely enjoyed each of the four stories I read today. Each story is uniquely complex in their own right, and equally awesome, but I’ll write about the title story today, as it’s my favorite of the batch.

“Compression Scars” is about Ivy, an early-teen living in a suburb-type subdivision, the kind where kids run through neighbors’ yards on their way to their personal adventures and know whose house is whose, a fact or two about each person in each residence. The story starts with Ivy staring at some bats, bats who have converged upon the neighborhood. The bats fascinate Ivy and she follows them into one of those neighbors’ yards. Ivy, we soon find, is precocious (can a kid that old be precocious—I mean, wouldn’t they just be smart at that point?) and loquacious.Everything that Ivy sees, everything she experiences seems to get a page and a half of inner monologue, Ivy relaying whatever story she knows about that person or thing. This is what makes Ivy such an interesting character, how she diverges from the main story to tell us about one of her neighbors, or about the bats,  revealing Wells’ talent—everything Ivy thinks or says is really interesting and well written, its own story-within-a-story. Anyway, that’s the tone of “Compression Scars,” the technique Wells uses to tell Ivy’s tale.

Ivy follows the bats into Mr. Dorsett’s yard. Mr. Dorsett is a local deacon from a strict church, a deacon who once forbade his daughter from playing with Ivy because of her aforementioned precociousness and loquaciousness and general godlessness. It turns out that Mr. Dorsett’s sump pump is busted and is stinking up the neighborhood and he’s out trying to fix it when he comes across Ivy, staring up one of his trees, looking at bats. One of my favorite parts of the story is their initial confrontation, when Mr. Dorsett asks Ivy what she’s doing in his yard. Ivy tells him that she was wondering if the new tree spray was working, a spray that, if sprayed on average trees, will make them grow fruits like apples and bananas and mangos. Ivy makes this up off the cuff, not because she has to, but because that’s who Ivy is—and Mr. Dorsett isn’t having any of it. When he gives her a look of disapproval, she immediately relents and just says, “Bats.”

This is a pretty long opening scene in a twenty-two page story, and when it comes down to it, isn’t really what the story’s about—it’s just setting up Ivy, this neighborhood setting, how Ivy occupies it. The story really is about Ivy and her best friend-type, Duncan, a boy she thinks is perfectly beautiful, inside and out. After her run-in with Mr. Dorsett, Ivy heads over to Duncan’s, only to be greeted by his mom at the door, a mom who embraces her, tears running down her face, explaining how terrible it is for something like this to happen to someone so young. She then lets Ivy in to see Duncan, giving no explanation, making Ivy and us wonder what the heck is going on.

I hate giving too much away, but we’re still early in the story, so I think this is fair game. In his room, Duncan describes a condition known as morphea, which according to Duncan, makes scars on his legs stand out, seem prominent, and eventually, eat him alive. The way Duncan tells it, there is no cure for morphea, implying that he’s going to die (though my Google search of the disease notes that morphea is never fatal, but can cause disability). Ivy prods Duncan and through their dialogue we find out that Duncan was in some kind of crash where he’d been pressed up against a curb, giving him what he calls compression scars, from pressure, which can hide in the body and emerge at any time. It’s actually pretty complicated and Ivy, like me, wonders if Duncan is making this all up—remember, Ivy had just thrown magic fruit spray at Mr. Dorsett, so maybe Duncan, as Ivy’s best friend, has just as good of an imagination? In any case, the scars are real and wrap around Duncan’s legs and almost glow and Ivy can’t dispute them (and therefore, neither can we, not totally).

Wells takes this scene in another direction when Duncan tries kissing Ivy, sticking his tongue down her throat, then later, puts his hand on her breast (which Ivy had noted earlier to have grown a cup size in the last month), claiming he doesn’t want to die a virgin. The Duncan that Ivy has described wouldn’t use an illness like this to get some action—though maybe Ivy is unaware of a teenage boy’s libido—and Ivy is certainly not having any of it. Maybe it’s the scars. Maybe it’s because she thinks of Duncan as a friend. Or maybe Ivy’s just not ready—no matter how mature she seems up to this point. She is not going to sleep with Duncan in his room this afternoon. Things can get strange so fast, she notes, then leaves.

I won’t reveal anything further about this story, as other things happen, things that are completely original, surprising, and wonderful. There’s a run-in with another neighborhood character, plus another scene with Duncan, a really beautiful scene that simply has to be read. In the end, this story is about these two kids and their offbeat and wonderful personalities, their friendship, how that friendship changes as they grow older, become not-kids, but full functional adults. Ivy is one of the most well drawn characters I’ve come across this entire year—356 posts in—making this is a late entry in the “My Favorite Stories of the Year” race. Nothing about this story is like anything I’ve read before, every paragraph, every turn taking me in a direction I could not have predicted, be it a characterization, a plot twist, or a description. Wow, I want to say. Wow.

Compression Scars by Kellie Wells is a masterful collection, its stories reaching beyond traditional fiction, yet not anything I would describe as particularly experimental. I did read one list story, but otherwise, Wells’ imagination, quirky sense of humor, and willingness to head in untrackable directions mark her work as entertaining and unique, but not off-putting or pretentious. She’s one of the authors I’ve read this year who truly has her own style, a style I want to read more and more of, as much as I can.

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