“Jaws of Life” by Laura Leigh Morris

Hello, Story366! I hope you’re having a great Wednesday. Today is May 2, the second day  of National Short Story Month, and here I am, writing about a short story. Brings to mind this time last year, how I made a plan to do a Story366 entry every day during May—you know, to celebrate—as I’d only done a few up to that point in 2017. I took some time off after the rigors of the everyday 2016 schedule, so I wanted to catch up, read some books. Come May, I got off to a great start, doing an entry the first four or five or six days. Then something came up and I didn’t do one one day. Then finals and grading happened, and I didn’t do another entry that month, more or less spitting in the face of National Short Story Month. So sorry, NSSM!

I’m doing an entry today without making any grandiose plans, just reading and writing when I can. National Short Story Month doesn’t get as much press or fanfare as National Poetry Month, as it’s newer and we don’t have a famous story first line—like the poets do with Eliot’s “April is the cruelest month”—to mark May as the occasion (or am I wrong about that?). In fact, I wouldn’t know anything about National Short Story Month if it weren’t for inexhaustible Dan Wickett, who really goes all out on his Emerging Writers Network blog, fighting the good fight for stories, as he always has. Since stories are probably the most important thing to me outside of family, the Cubs, and well spiced meat dishes covered in melted cheese, I can help spread the excitement, tell everyone to read stories this month, and make some pretty good recommendations.

Last night I picked up Jaws of Life by Laura Leigh Morris, her debut collection that’s fresh out from Vandalia Press. Laura took some online workshops from me a decade or so ago and I’ve been following her career ever since. I’m of course thrilled for her that this collection has been published, as Laura has always had a lot of talent and has worked very hard to learn her craft. The stories in Jaws of Life mostly take place in Morris’ home state of West Virginia, and for the most part, are stories about regular West Virginians, working-class ilk, who run into particular predicaments, or as we like to call them in the story world, conflicts. Morris masterfully implements interesting people and interesting predicaments, time after time, finding her heroes en medias res, prime to make decisions that will affect the stories’ outcomes. What I’m describing here is a rather standard storytelling technique, sure, but it’s what Morris excels at, what made me gobble these stories up, one after another, when I really should have gone to bed.

There’s a lot of highlights in Jaws of Life, including the lead story, “Frackers,” about woman who’s sold her land to a fracking outfit, only to rebel against them, and their sleep-depriving floodlights, via a ninja costume and BB gun. “Fat Bottomed Girls” plays around with perspective a bit and has some memorable  images. “The Tattoo” is a playful relationship story. Still, Morris has chosen “Jaws of Life” as her title story, and since it’s a story I like, maybe the most of any in the book, I’m writing about that.

“Jaws of Life” is about Harold, a seventy-year-old guy whose wife, Iris, has Alzheimer’s. Iris is starting to forget things more frequently, including Harold, and the story begins with Iris forgetting a doctor’s appointment. Iris’ disease hasn’t quite reached the point where she’s rejecting Harold, becoming upset by his presence (i.e., a stranger in her midst), but she has recently wandered in the middle of the night, forcing Harold to put padlocks on the doors. They head out to the appointment in Harold’s truck, another step toward a long and darkening road.

Only, when Harold and Iris get to the office, Iris in the nurses’ hands, Harold makes a decision: He leaves. He makes an excuse about needing his phone from his truck. Perhaps, when Harold makes this lie, it’s not a lie, as he has forgotten his phone and he thinks that he could use it during Iris’ hour-long appointment. When Harold gets to his truck, however, he’s already made up his mind that he’s going to get inside, maybe just to chill; when he finds himself driving away, perhaps he’s just going for a ride, that he’ll be back within the hour, no one really noticing he’s gone. Soon, though, Harold has gone too far to make it back in time and he’s officially abandoned his Alzheimer’s-stricken wife at the hospital.

Morris could have spent the rest of the story justifying Harold’s action, explaining to us how Harold doesn’t have the make-up to deal with Iris’ condition, or some other way to justify Harold driving off. That would have been a story, for sure, but Morris wisely steers clear of that, as really, there’s no way to make that work: Harold’s just a bad guy here. Morris also tells us, in this same stretch, how Harold and Iris met, years earlier: At a widow’s/widower’s support group. Nice, right? Sort of, except that Iris’ husband had just died but Harold had never been married: He was just trolling the widow support group. Maybe the guy who picks up women at this type of place isn’t necessarily the same guy who abandons his sick wife at the hospital, but that’s where we are with Harold, a complex protagonist, for sure.

It takes Morris about half of her story to get to this point, and so far, we haven’t even gotten to the titular jaws of life yet, As a story enthusiast, I firmly believe in that age-old philosophy of Chekhov’s jaws of life, that if you title a story “Jaws of Life,” you gotta feature someone cut out of their car sooner or later or I’ll call bullshit. The only question becomes, will the wreck involve Harold, or will it involve someone else? Harold himself narrowly avoids the accident, but the little Miata behind him, which slams on its brakes right after Harold slams on his, isn’t so lucky: A big truck climbs up the back of the tiny car, crushing it like a soda can, its driver still inside.

Despite Harold’s recent cowardice, it’s admirable how he doesn’t hesitate to jump out of his truck and tend to the mess behind him—he’s spied an arm sticking out of the twisted metal, which in no regards is a good sign. Harold is relieved to get an answer when he calls inside the wreck, a voice that belongs to Angie, the unfortunate driver who is trapped and has become the sardined focus of the story.

As you might guess, the jaws of life eventually find their way onto the page, but “Jaws of Life” isn’t really about that drama, whether or not some sort of emergency personnel get Angie out in time. The story is about Harold still, how he faces adversity, how he relates to humans, and whether or not anything that happens can redeem him. Remember, Iris is probably finishing her appointment around this time, and while Harold might be distracted by the accident, by Angie—certainly, he’ll have to make statements, something that will take up time, something Harold could use to justify his absence—the nurses at Iris’ doctor’s office are going to start looking for him. Iris may start to panic. Maybe Harold has temporarily forgotten about all that, and maybe we readers have, too. But that’s what this story is fundamentally about: How these incidents relate to each other, how they play off each other, how they form off our expectations and judgments.

“Jaws of Life” is a well written story, one that makes some really interesting choices—I particularly like the support group detail, that Harold was posing just to score a special ladyfriend. It’s a traditional story, for sure, and as I noted when I wrote about David Armstrong earlier this year, it’s almost experimental to be a realist in today’s increasingly fabulist literary landscape. Morris’ stories are refreshing in that way, tales of real people being real, faced with real situations, forced to make real choices. It’s fundamental, but fundamentals work: I liked each and every story I read in Jaws of Life. I’m proud of Laura for writing this book, an exceptionally solid debut, a great choice to kick off National Short Story Month.

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