“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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