“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.