“Those Like Us” by Christopher Lowe

Good to be back, Story366! Wow, did I go the whole month of January and only do one post? Wow, I knew I’d take a break, ease off, let my mind do its thing for a while, but I didn’t think I’d cut back that much. Well, my mind is rested and I’ve been missing the blog, missing the books, missing the new stories, so here I am, almost 1 a.m. the morning after Groundhog Day, back at it. Long live the story!

What’s funny is, despite only putting up one post all month, January 2017 was not the month with the least hits for the blog—that honor, for some reason, goes to April and June of last year, when I did thirty posts each time. As a baseball fan, I’m all into stats, which is one of the reasons I love doing this on WordPress, just because they give you tons. Before I started writing this tonight, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that people still go to the blog, every day, and read various entries. In fact, it totally makes my day, night, week, and young month of February. Every day it’s a different author that seems to be getting attention, too, which is awesome. I knew I’d finish the original 366 one day, but always hoped this would carry on as a living archive. so far, so good.

It’s also strange that I’m doing a post tonight because I’m, for the first time in four days, not deathly ill. I had a bout with the brutal kind of nasty this week, a mix of flu and either bronchitis or pneumonia (I’ve had both before and think this has felt like pneumonia so I’ve been telling people pneumonia because that’s more badass than bronchitis, which is what little kids get when they don’t button their snow boots tight). It came on Monday, almost killed me Tuesday, added a bad head cold Wednesday, and more or less left town on Thursday. Still taking antibiotics—which I’m thinking of marrying right now—and the fact that I’ve been able to read, write, and type is a good sign. Still, here’s a shot of me at the university health center that Karen took (she drove me and waited for me even though it’s a block from our house and I can see it right now from our back window as I write this):


That’s me in the foreground. That guy in the background? Now he’s famous. Or maybe infected. Either one.

Not sure how much I’ll be writing in the coming week or so, either, seeing as how AWP is next week in DC and Moon City Press just had two titles come back from the printer today, Michelle Ross‘ There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You and Moon City Review 2017. Take a peek:

I’m pretty stoked to be adding these titles to the catalogue, along with all our other great books. I also can’t wait to see them all stacked up together on the MCP table at AWP. I’m such a collector, adding another Moon City Short Fiction Award winner and another issue of the mag to their respective series is like a dream, especially two coming on the same day. Bliss!

Wait! Aren’t I supposed to write about a story or something today? Right! For tonight’s entry, I read from Christopher Lowe‘s collection Those Like Us, out from Stephen F. Austin State University Press. I’ve known Chris and his work for a while now, always enjoying what he does, but never sat down and read any in succession. I read a quad of tales tonight, finding out that his stories read really well like that, together, most likely because Those Like Us is a book of linked stories—one of Lowe’s blurbists even calls it a novel—a collection set in the fictional Wyeth, Mississippi. I’m writing about the title story tonight, but saw a couple of supporting characters from it show up as supporting characters in other stories as well (and, I’m assuming, in more stories, perhaps even as the leads). What I read, jumping all over the book, all feels so homogenous, sure, but genuine, too, as Lowe has surely captured smalltown Mississippi in this outstanding effort.

“Those Like Us” is about this guy who finds himself, at the start of the story, dealing with Hurricane Jonathan, thinking about that name, Jonathan, and how inappropriate it feels for a hurricane. Of course, none of that matters, as nothing changes the fact Jonathan has hit the coast and caused a lot of damage. Wyeth is a bit inland, saving it from the brunt of things, but some powerful storms have still knocked power out, namely to the bar our hero has just inherited from his uncle. The joint is called The Porch and it has one big room, a bathroom, and a little room in back where our guy sleeps and lives. It’s located down the road a bit from the Wyeth Walmart, so the two establishments share some traffic. It’s the kind of place the local college kids go to because they know our protagonist, just a few years older than they are, won’t ID, won’t keep them in check, and won’t even close when the whole town is in the dark. All of it is a recipe for things going wrong, which is cool, because this is a short story and that’s what stories are supposed to do.

One thing does seem to be going well—”seem” being the key word—and that’s how Karen, the Porch’s pretty waitress, has had to stay the night at the bar, the roads too bad to travel after close. Karen wakes up in his bed in the back just when our guy is considering Jonathan as a hurricane moniker. There’s mention of a woman named Sally (in the narration, not out loud), and it seems as if our barkeep has cheated on the lovely Sally with the lovely Karen. That’s a ruse, however, as we soon find out that Karen slept alone in that bed—our guy sleeping on the bar, I guess?—and nothing happened, though everything about Karen’s body language says she would have loved some company, the way she touches him, how she says she’ll come back and hang out with him, even if they don’t open, just to hang out alone in his dark bar. Sounds appealing—I should note that our protagonist is really into Karen, too, so it’s not just her—but there’s still the Sally factor, which seems to complicate things.

Only, it doesn’t, not really, as Sally already left our guy and took her daughter (which our guy was helping her to raise, which he considered his own) months ago and split. Lowe informs us that the only thing delaying a hook-up with Karen in the back of the bar on a rainy, dark day is our guy’s inability to act. He just can’t do it, not even when Karen bumps hips with him on the way out and flashes him her best smile. Our guy just freezes, a trait that becomes his most dominant.

Even worse, instead of closing the bar and taking Karen up on her offer to do whatever, our guy opens his doors, lets in a bunch of college kids, college kids that end up drinking too much (it happens), and … well, that’s about all I’ll reveal in terms of plot. Other things happen, a lot of backstory comes into play, and in the end, the story ends (as they tend to do).

As much as what happens in “Those Like Us” and what Lowe’d protagonist doesn’t do, this story should be marked by the atmosphere that its author so carefully paints. Wyeth seems pretty swell, even to this Chicago Yank, a place where friendly people sip beer, watch and talk college football, eat barbecue, and fall in love with the people they grew up with. It’s rainy in this title story because of the hurricane, but other stories seem to pulse green and freshness, crickets and other critters buzzing on every page. Wyeth, like Winesburg, Ohio, or even Knockemstiff, needs to be where it is, these stories existing in this place, this place existing for these stories. Lowe’s also wickedly good at weaving his seemingly simple tales into a larger, broader vision, one that I’m guessing becomes more and more enriched with every story you read.

So, I really like “Those Like Us,” the strong title story from one of two Christopher Lowe story collections (he also has a book of essays). Lowe utilizes place as well as anyone I’ve read—and that’s no overstatement, even considering how much I’ve read—but also made me really like every character I encountered, put me in every story I visited, made me care about these people, want to visit this town. No easy order, but this really good book pulls it off.