December 26, 2016: “Big Bad Love” by Mary Miller

How’s it going, Story366? My existence has been exactly what I like it to be today, sleeping in, accomplishing small tasks, reading and writing, eating good food (of the leftover variety), and in general, not having a particular place or time to worry about. The family and I had some nice time together—still a joy to watch the boys enjoy their toys—but we also all had separate, private time to be in our own heads, make the day what we wanted it to be. Days like this are few and far between, so I’m cherishing. Still five hours to go, too. Who knows what else is in store?

Today I read from Mary Miller‘s forthcoming collection, Always Happy Hour, coming this January from Liveright.Publishing. This is the second book I’ve done on Story366 (after A.A. Balaskovits’) that’s not out yet, but I’ve had Miller’s ARC for about a month and have been itching to read it, wanting to fit it in before the end of the year. I’ve known Miller’s work for a long time, having read it in lit journals, having heard her read it live, and having published one of these stories, “He Says I Am a Little Oven,” in Mid-American Review before I left there. The leisurely nature of the day, combined with how much I was enjoying these stories, lead me pretty deep into the collection, and after reading five or six stories, I’ve settled on “Big Bad Love” to write about today.

Side bar: “Big Bad Love” is also the title of a Larry Brown collection and story, one I read over twenty years ago and is very awesome (also made into a movie by Arliss Howard, which is pretty good as well). The real anecdote here is that searching out info on this book led me to one of my first interweb foibles: Imagine it being ’95, the Internet so new, and typing “Big Bad Love” into Netscape Navigator. Now imagine the search results, as computers, unlike me, don’t assume surfers are looking for short story collections. The result was my first “Yikes! Sorry!” in a university computer lab, me trying to cover the screen with my hand as I frantically searched for the back button, only bringing more eyes to what I was doing, to the big, bad love displayed for all to see.

Back to Mary Miller and her “Big Bad Love.” Her story is about this young woman, mid-twenties I’d guess, who is working at a home for abused, neglected, and abandoned kids. We don’t find that out, not right away, as the opening scene of the story is just this narrator—we don’t know who she is yet, or even more importantly, how old she is—hanging out with these kids, who are playing with broken roller skates and bikes. One of the girls, Diamond, wants attention, and when she doesn’t get it, she stands on an ant hill until the ants bite the shit out of her, forcing our narrator to pay attention, give her care. They go insides, slab on some Neosporin, then the narrator then checks on a nursery, where a single baby is inside a crib in a room filled with cribs, crying and soaking wet. She changes the baby, but by this time, Miller has us asking questions, like where exactly we are and who this narrator is. Is she one of the kids? Is this place in some sort of post-apocalypse setting, the shelter so bleak and seemingly lacking in adults?

We eventually figure out that no, the narrator is the adult, but sounds young enough to be one of the other kids, maybe a teenager (oft referred to as “the older kids” in the story). She is also hopeful and helpful in ways some of the other workers, whom we meet one by one, no longer are. Our narrator wants to help Diamond—victim of everything horrible you can think of—and her tone, actions, mannerisms indicate that she, unlike her coworkers and a lot of the kids, hasn’t had her spirit broken, her soul drained from her by everything she’s seen. At least not yet. It’s a neat trick by Miller, making the setting, even the character, a bit vague at first, as that part of what this story is about, just how close this woman is to these kids and their awful situations.

Once the setting becomes clear, the inner workings mapped out for us (in short, the shelter is understaffed, underfunded, and overcrowded), we start to get to know our protagonist more intimately, Miller good at peppering poignant details in when she can. We know she’s the de facto dietician and lunch lady because she has a college degree and her superior—which she’s only met twice—wants her to go to a seminar to learn the minimum amount of protein they can get away with putting into a serving. We know she is married to a very nice guy who reads motorcycle magazines but has never been on a motorcycle. We know she snags a pill or two, mostly Adderall, to keep her going, no one really keeping track. We know she has taken a particular shine to Diamond, whose multiple problems require more attention than the shelter can afford.

Through all of this, our hero still tries to do the right thing because that’s just who she is. Maybe one day she’ll be more jaded, see enough Diamonds come and go, cut herself off emotionally so she doesn’t die. Or maybe she won’t. I won’t reveal anymore of the plot here, as I’m pretty far in already, and you can read for yourself to find out what happens.

The young protagonist in “Big Bad Love” is like a lot of the protagonists in Always Happy Hour, young women who have found a niche in life, but aren’t particularly thrilled with the niche, assuming it to be temporary, trying to figure out what to do instead. “He Says I Am a Little Oven” is about a woman on a cruise with her boyfriend, trying to make that work. “Where All the Beautiful People Go” is about a young woman who hangs around an older couple and their kids just to get a free supply of pills. “Little Bear” is about a young mother, wondering why she had a kid, assuming she’s going to have another. The characters in these stories feel, above all else, very real, characters who have gravitated to situations, not because they necessarily chose them, but because that what their lives dictated. The little details, characters reading magazines that don’t apply to them, a woman’s unnatural fondness for a little boy, are heaped on, selling each of these women as unique, all of them individuals with specific problems, eclectic ways of handling them (or not). I really loved this collection and look forward to finishing it and recommend you pick this up as soon as it comes out. It’s an early frontrunner, in the way-too-soon polls, for one of my favorites for 2017.