“Other Household Toxins” by Christopher Allen

Good morning, Story366! Today is a beautiful day if there ever was one, in the sixties, sunny, dry, birds chirping outside my window. In every sensible world, I’d be outside, doing something with the youngest, who doesn’t get on a bus for school until 12:15. He could ride his bike back and forth on our block. We could have a catch. We could look for butterflies. We could clean the gutters, him dropping leaves and helicopters and dead birds down to me from up on a ladder. You know, father-son bonding stuff.

As I noted the other day while posting on Kerry Neville, however, I’m pretty stoked to read all these books I picked up at AWP last month, to write about them, to keep Story366 trucking along. Along with a half-dozen more books I picked up in Tampa, my Save-for-Later sub-Cart on Amazon—how I keep track of which books I need to get, read, and write about—is up to ninety-three books, including some that have been there for a couple of years, some that I added after discovering them at Barnes & Noble this past weekend, and then a whole bunch more I found on this cool list last night. What that boils down to is short stories are awesome, presses are publishing collections, and I want to read every damn one of them.

Today’s entry comes from Matter Press‘s Other Household Toxins by Christopher Allen. Chris is a cohort of mine from the SmokeLong Quarterly world, Chris serving as the Managing Editor and me (along with the Karen) as Interviews Editor. I’ve only met Chris on a couple of occasions, but have corresponded with him at least sixty thousand times. Most of those correspondences go something to the tune of Hey, Mike, we’re finishing the new issue up and we really need those interviews, and then I’m like, I didn’t send those to you the other day? Really? Well, I’m going into my office tomorrow (pretending I don’t have email at home or on my phone) and I’ll resend. So sorry this happened again! Stupid technology! And then I start finally start assigning the interviews, start thinking about my responsibility for the first time. I can usually fake an Internet outage to give myself another half day, fake some medical procedure (by Chris’ count, I’ve had eleven vasectomies and ten reversals), and have rushed to the hospital for the birth of another child—Chris thinks Karen and I are the Duggars of Southwest Missouri. For the next issue, if I’m behind, I might track Chris down in Europe—where he lives somewhere—and set off a pinch, like in Ocean’s 11 or Captain America: Civil War, just to give me an extra day.

But when I saw that Chris’ debut collection was coming out, I had to grab a copy, have Chris sign it at the SmokeLong Quarterly table in Tampa, and put it on the short stack of books to cover here. A month later, here we are, me reading this flash collection last night and this morning. Lots of great pieces to choose from, published in the widest array of lit mags I’ve ever seen a writer showcased. I really loved pieces like “Sisters,” “When Susan Died the First Time,” and “The Pain Taster,” but because I always do this, am going to write about the title story, “Other Household Toxins,” the last piece in the collection.

I like “Other Household Toxins” for a lot of reasons, but firstly, it’s one of the better title stories I’ve seen in a while in the way in encompasses/represents/symbolizes/speaks for the collection as a whole. In the story, the title is taken from a line that the protagonist says to someone in a dream, referring to the general sense of the phrase, poisons that we all keep on hand, bottles of bleach and furniture polish, bags of moth balls, disgusting Brussels sprouts waiting to be cooked so they can emit their foul odor. In the big picture, Allen is more or less talking about the people we live with, those folks around our house who bring pain and suffering and conflict and general annoyance to our lives. Reading through this book, it’s hard to nail down one particular theme—there’s a lot of stories—but the characters in these fictions seem most troubled, most bothered, and most hurt by the ones they love, as the song (sorta) goes. Aren’t we all?

Since this is a flash collection, the stories are of course short, so I won’t do much of a rundown, not without risk of major spoilage. “Other Household Toxins” the story is about this guy, unnamed, who endeavors on sorting out a dream, one that seems to consistently involve a girl, a tree, some smoke, and a squirrel. The speaker here is constantly returning to this dream, and because of the nature of dreams and how we remember them (or manipulate them), the dream keeps changing. Maybe it’s because he has the dream all the time and it varies with each incarnation, or it’s because he can’t fully recall exactly what happened that one time.

In any case, the main action of the dream seems to be happening at a funeral or wake, or maybe just a gathering after someone has died. The protagonist’s father is weeping. Everyone’s weeping. The protagonist, to escape the weeping, goes out back—this seems to be happening in a farmhouse, something out of Grant Wood—and encounters the aforementioned quartet: the girl, the tree, the smoke (which, by the way, tends to come from a joint), and the squirrel. The protagonist engages these elements—mainly the girl—and from there, that’s where things diverge. Sometimes the tree looks one way, sometimes another. That sort of thing.

And that’s really as far as I can go without divulging too much (if I haven’t already), as the dream, as dreams tend to do, gets really strange, feeling mercurial and symbolic. And then, just like that, “Other Household Toxins” and Other Household Toxins is done.

While I’m not a fan of dream stories—that’s on the Nah … list in my classes—I oddly love meta-investigations of dreams, someone trying to figure out what haunts them, someone cyclically distraught, someone recognizing how powerless they are in the midst of their own consciousness (and conscience). Allen handles that exquisitely in this story, and in a way, that’s what this book is, Allen returning, time and again, to misfortune, quirk, and anomaly in his stories, different yet unique versions of an exercise. I’m not trying to say Allen has worked through a nightmare by writing this book, exorcising some recurring vision he can’t shake. I mean, no more than the rest of us writers do, anyway.

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“The Lionman” by Kerry Neville

What’s up, Story366? Look at me, writing another entry after just posting one a week ago.  I’ve gotten my hands on a lot of good books recently, including a big stash at AWP, so I have a stack on my desk staring me down. I also was at Barnes & Noble this past weekend and ran into four or five brand-new collections that I want to pick up. In short, I’ve been energized by all these stories surrounding me and really couldn’t wait to get back to it, make another post. My quest to review every short story collection ever has been reinvigorated!

Today’s collection, Remember to Forget Me by Kerry Neville, comes to us from Braddock Avenue Books, more specifically their Alleyway Books imprint. I like the books from this press. I’ve reviewed four so far, an eclectic and solid stable of story writers. Their editor, Jeffrey Condran, stopped by the Moon City table at AWP and dropped off a couple of titles (Note: Editors, this is a fantastic way to get your books reviewed at Story366) and I’m glad to have found Neville’s book in the pile. I’ve read a story or two by her before—all of the pieces appeared in prominent lit mags before the collection came out—but was, as always, was pleased to have her book in my hands.

I read a few stories from this collection, starting with the title story, a piece about a guy whose wife has Alzheimer’s and is living in a facility for such folks, the guy having to deal with the fact that the love his life and 46-year partner no longer knows who he is, and, in fact, is frightened by him and screams whenever he’s around. The second story I read, “The Hitman of Bucharest,” is similar, this time about a guy living on Fulbright in Bucharest not long after his wife has committed suicide. The third story I read, “The Lionman,” the last story in the book, read a lot differently, almost as if by a different writer, and immediately, I knew it would be the one I focused on here.

“The Lionman” is about the Lionman, a then-called freak in an early twentieth-century Brooklyn circus named Dreamland. The Lionman a guy short in stature completely covered by hair and his job at the circus is to sit in a cage and growl at people as they walk by. Some people toss him scraps of food (which I’m guessing he has to eat), the smarter folks seeing what’s going on and tossing him some coins instead. It’s been his existence since he was five, his birth mom selling him to the circus when she grew tired of shaving him, of trying to deal with the situation—I should probably note that the Lionman’s father was mauled to death by a lion in the Central Park zoo a month and a half before the Lionman was born. Of course, this isn’t how genetics work and has nothing to do with why the Lionman is covered in hair, but it certainly contributes to his name and his mother’s inability to raise him, on her own and convinced that the pregnancy was cursed by her husband’s grizzly demise.

But all that comes to us in backstory. The story starts with the Lionman as an adult, a lifelong performer, and focuses more on the Lionman’s attempts to be more normal, to find human affection and interaction. In some ways, he gets more interaction than anyone needs, people staring at him and poking at him and heckling him all day, the bright spots those people who see him for what he is—a person with a shitty job and a shitty affliction (hypertrichosis, according to Wikipedia, aka, “werewolf syndrome”) and look at him with pity and compassion instead of fear or revolt.

That’s not really good enough for the Lionman, however, and it shouldn’t be. There are several mentions of visits to prostitutes, and even those aren’t exactly tender affairs, his contact with them often limited; the circus nurse assumes he has lice and that he scares the children. At one point, he seems to have had a relationship with Violetta, the Half-Woman, another performer (born without arms and legs), with whom the Lionman smokes and rides Ferris wheels, but perhaps not much else.

Hope comes in the form of Hildy, the circus owner’s daughter, who takes a shine to the Lionman, even finds out his real name for us: Stephan Bibrowski (Hey! The Lionman’s Polish!). Hildy senses what any decent person would, that Stephan has feelings, that he might not want to live in a rusty cage and have people spit at him.

Hildy gets the Lionman in at the Incubator, this barn at the edge of the property that holds a bunch of preemies, a collection of babies born way too early, tiny things either born in the circus or perhaps left there. There, once Hildy convinces the nurse there is no lice, Stephan can hold and help care for the needy infants.

Hold up for a major sidebar: Honestly, I didn’t know why these tiny babies were at the circus in a building dubbed “The Incubator.” As I read—and I read this story three times to make sure I wasn’t missing anything—I assumed that they were either born in the circus, the children of the “freaks,” or were left there by ordinary citizens who simply didn’t want their preemies and for some reason gave them to the circus. Curious, I looked up “circus preemies” and found this really informative article that told me that this was in fact a real thing, that Dreamland, too, was a real part of Coney Island, as was Hildy and her father. Dreamland ran a free-to-parents incubator nursery where Brooklynites and others could see their premature babies come to full term, which seems like a really great and human thing (maybe to counter the fact the same circus put a bunch of humans in cages and called them “freaks”). All in all, this is historical fiction—I learned something today!

And, yes, of course, I checked: the Lionman was real, too:

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Even more historical!

How does the realness—which I’ve discovered as I write this post—change my reading of the story? It clears a few things up, I suppose, as I’d feared the worst, that Dreamland was taking unwanted preemies and grooming them into its future cage-dwellers. Glad that wasn’t it (but then again, if this was all fiction, what would it matter?).

A big, dramatic event concludes “The Lionman,” and as always, I won’t reveal that here, though it adds a rousing, redeeming feel to the story. I liked the story before I knew about its historical nature and suppose I like it more now. Either way, in “The Lionman” Neville does what she seems to do in all these stories (or at least the ones I’ve read), and that’s pinpoint the apex of her protagonists’ pain, then write about how they deal. Whether it’s the guy whose wife is suddenly “with” another man in her Alzheimer’s home or the guy who’s trying to raise a son in a foreign country after his wife kills herself or it’s this circus performer who’s treated like an animal, Neville seems familiar with pain and suffering, or is at least able to project it onto the page. It takes the form of living people and their interesting yet devastating situations. I.e., short stories.

“The Lionman,” unlike the other, more contemporary stories, is also written in another style, as if Neville is mimicking a more Modern approach, her other works feeling more contemporary in diction and structure, employing more conventional linearity and psychic distance as well.

Is this the most rambling of all my Story366 posts? Maybe. Maybe I’m out of practice, but the long and the short of it is I liked reading Neville’s stories, admired how she was able to tackle themes and plots that I can’t bring myself to write about. How she humanized and individualized people who are easy to peg, easy to take for granted as tropes. That’s what I’m guessing Remember to Forget Me is all about, the people who are forgotten—after all, that title, in the title story, isn’t referring to the person who has the actual memory loss ,but the person who’s left behind: He’s the one who who is being instructed to forget (easier said than done, we find out, time after time). Three stories in, this collection seems to be about the people left behind, what they face in the wake of their despair, and how they soldier on. It’s a good theme for a good book, one I’m better for having picked up.

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“Lost-and-Found Girls” by David Armstrong

Hello there, Story366 loyalists! Yet again, it’s been awhile since I’ve blogged a new entry, which seems to be how I start all of these. Every time I do one, I think I’ll do another the next day, or maybe one a week, but then I don’t. My goal in life today was to get the boys to school, meet with a student I was scheduled to meet with, and write this entry, and it looks like I’m three for three. I probably should have included “get the boys from school” on that list. Fear not: I figure they’re so jacked up on Easter candy and will be coming down soon, they’ll be needing more. They’ll find their way home, to their baskets.

The majority of the distraction since last time has been Moon City Press-related, as I put out a couple of titles, Moon City Review 2018 and Undoing by Kim Magowan, which isn’t easy, putting out two titles at once. I do the same thing every fall, but it’s harder in the spring, as there’s an actual deadline, us getting copies of the books to AWP, which is the other thing that kept me from blogging (though last year, I wrote my Jensen Beach entry at the MCP book fair table). The good news is, both the new MCR and Kim’s book were done in time to ship to Tampa, where we gave away three hundred copies of the journal and sold a box and a half of Kim’s book, her debut (love seeing authors with their first books!). Overall, I dug Tampa a whole lot, both as a city and as an AWP site, putting it in the top five places at which I’ve attended that conference (18 of the last 19 years). I liked Denver a whole lot, how the conference center just poured into the downtown. I liked Austin a lot for the same reason, and how SXSW was there, in the same conference center, at the same time. And of course I loved having AWP in Chicago, three times now, especially since I had books debut two of those years, including my first book, which was pretty special. I ate good food in Tampa, met a lot of friends, had some good drinks, such as a Big Al’s Window Cleaner

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… which we all thought was going to be some badassmotherfucker of a drink that stripped the shit off our stomach walls—it ended up being really fruity and delicious. That’s all I can ask for in a conference: friends, food, and fruitiness. Portland, here we come.

For today’s entry, I read from David Armstrong‘s collection, Reiterations, a recent (2014) winner of the New American Fiction Prize from New American Press. I’d not read anything by Armstrong before, so I was eager to see what this author had to offer, a guy who’s the author of another collection, Going Anywhere, and a chapbook, Missives From the Green Campaign.

I read the first three stories from Reiterations, which is cut into six Roman-numbered and titled sections, two stories per section. The section titles run along the lines of “In which is discussed the violence of men and the strength of women,” the first section, and “In which is discussed disenfranchisement and alienation,” the second section, etc. I’m writing about the first story, “Lost-and-Found Girls,” which is in that first section (of course), and is surely about the violence of men (several men) and the strength of women (or at least one woman). It’s the tale of Heath, a middle-aged small-town newspaper man whose only daughter, Amelia, has run away, has been gone for years, no word, no trace, little hope to see her again. Heath and his wife, Shannon, are devastated, and before long, begin to grow apart, their existences dwindling at the same time. Heath, who refused to work at his father-in-law’s farm, instead purchasing a tiny paper. This worked, for a while, when Heath was young and happy and all-in, but after Amelia’s disappearance, the paper dwindles along with Heath and his marriage. His farmer father-in-law (think of William H. Macy’s father-in-law in Fargo) is ready to wring his neck, blaming him for his Shannon’s misery and Amelia’s disappearance. Heath is a pathetic protagonist, to be sure.

Still a talented reporter and investigator, Heath sets out on finding Amelia after law enforcement officials and private eyes fail him. He inundates himself with Google search techniques and amongst his findings, he discovers a grisly set of murders. The murders are all of women, of various ages and backgrounds and geographical locations, with one consistency: Their remains are discovered underneath hotel room mattresses. Heath becomes obsessed with these cases, wondering if they’re connected (though it’s presented as unlikely by Armstrong), and eventually, assumes Amelia has fallen victim to this very fate. It doesn’t make sense, thousands of women disappearing every year and only a half dozen ever showing up in a mattress, but that’s the fiction here, Heath making this connection, unable to get it out of his head. Maybe it’s grief. Maybe it’s guilt. Whatever it is, it’s a very specific type of self-torture.

As their marriage gasps and wheezes, Heath proposes a trip to Shannon, a way to start over, Heath manipulating her to Las Vegas; uncoincidentally, it’s where a few of the mattress women have been discovered. In the guise of a vacation, Shannon seems to be smitten with Heath again, but we know Heath’s ulterior motive: He wants to see one of the crime scenes, make that physical connection to his obsession.

To make things more interesting, Armstrong has Heath pick up a hooker on his way to one of these aforementioned murder sites, a hooker who thinks she’s simply getting an old guy off, charging extra because it’s off the strip. The really beauty of this story, what makes is so compelling, is how Armstrong keeps Heath’s true intentions from us until the end: Is he going to kill Jezzebelle (the hooker) and stuff her body inside the box spring? Is he going to pretend she’s Amelia? Is he simply going to have sex with her (along with maybe one of the other options)? I won’t reveal what happens here, but for sure, the shit gets pretty intense.

Interspersed between Heath’s frontstory and backstory scenes are newspaper snippets of the murder reports, each victim’s name, age, place of discovery, and thumbnail biography presented for us to read, Armstrong basically gives us Heath’s bulletin board to peruse as we read the rest of the story. It’s a nice touch, as each vignette is a story on its own, tragic and creepy and foreboding all at once, making “Lost-and-Found Girls” an exhilarating read, one I enjoyed a whole lot.

I’m glad I got a chance to discover David Armstrong’s work, which seems to target pretty average people stuck in tense situations. Reiterations‘ second story, “French for Weaklings,” is about a woman traveling the backroads of Appalachian Ohio, her car breaking down, strangers coming upon her, the woman insisting she’s in control as we hear banjo music plucked in our heads. The third, “Eggs and Bacon and Coffee,” is about a small-town high school boy, abused and abandoned, who finds an outlet for his rage on the football field. I read so little realism these days—check my recent archives—it was refreshing to read this collection, to find a writer who has the talent to make something happen in the real world, to make it so compelling, to be in such control of what’s already out there, waiting to be fiction.

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