“You or a Loved One” by Gabriel Houck

Happy Monday, Story366! It’s nice to start off the week with some reading and blogging, as that’s the great advantage of summer. Hard to believe I’ve been done with that spring semester for a month now. Part of me is tempted to look back and evaluate what I’ve accomplished in the past month, but part of me knows, from experience, that there’s not a whole lot of good to come from that. I’m pretty sure most academic-types have grand plans for summer as they turn their spring grades in, plan to write seventeen novels and a bunch of stories, lose twenty-five pounds, and get their house in to having-company-shape, all by the end of May. It never really works out like that, not for for mere mortals like me, anyway, so I look at the small victories. Writing this post, for example, is more than a small victory, as I love doing these, but I don’t necessarily have to. I could be doing anything else right now, including sleeping or watching television. I’m not, though. And that’s a victory. After this, I probably will nap. And I might work on a story. But no matter what, I’ve done this. So, I salute you, summer, for both giving me the time to do great things and making me feel awful about it when I don’t.

I had a tremendous Father’s Day weekend to boot, as the boys (via Karen) got me and everyone a family pass to the Wonders of Wildlife, this giant new aquarium right here in Springfield, Missouri, part of the enormous Bass Pro complex and headquarters just a couple of miles from our house. We chose to visit on Saturday, even though we knew it would be crowded, but we were excited to see what was up (they’ve been building this attraction since before we moved here six years ago). Like with my story reviews here on this blog, I don’t want to give much away, but I will say that the aquarium lives up to the hype: Me and the fam had a great time, and tomorrow after school, I’m taking the boys back for another trip. Springfield doesn’t have a lot to offer out-of-towners in terms of attractions, but this jumps to the top of the list: I can legitimately say that it’s worth traveling here to visit this place. Happy Father’s Day, indeed.

Back to the blog, though. Today I read the first few stories from Gabriel Houck‘s new collection, You or a Loved One, just out from Orison Books as the winner of their 2017 Orison Fiction Prize. I hadn’t read anything from this press before, but I have read a few of Houck’s stories. One piece I read was in Mid-American Review a bit ago (I still get that mag!) and another (though this one not in the book) was in Moon City Review 2015. Obviously, I’ve liked what I’d seen, but it was nice to sit down with a whole collection, read a few in a row, see what Houck really does.

I liked all three of the stories I read in this book, including the title story (which is first), “The Dot Matrix,” about a kid stealing crappy porn printouts back in the nineties, and “Hero’s Theater,” the MAR piece, about a guy who has to play Spider-man at a kid’s birthday party. I liked all the stories a great deal, so I’m defaulting to the title story, as I usually do, as that’s what I’m doing.

“You or a Loved One” is about Belle, a crisis center phone operator who is, more or less, skimming along the surface of her life. She is forty years old and has moved across the country, away from her eighty-something-year-old parents, just to avoid them, be alone. She feels comfortable lying about her situation, insisting she’s been dating a wonderful man and has all kinds of gallery shows for her paintings, what she went to school for. She hasn’t painted in years, and her current boyfriend, twenty-five-year old Nick, has unique designs on what constitutes monogamy. She posits that she could still have a happy, nuclear life, complete with normal relationship and kids, but also admits that this window is closing, that it “… feels like a shuttered part of a shuttered house from which I’ve long since moved away.” So, Belle isn’t particularly happy, and knows she can do better, but isn’t the type of person who does.

The one human contact that she’s still fully invested in is her younger brother, Kip, a grown man with Aspergers (though they didn’t know that until he was grown), who calls Belle regularly, whom Belle even calls back. Belle still keeps herself isolated enough, though, as she never answers her phone, just listens to Kip’s messages on Voicemail, then returns his calls when she knows he won’t answer, so he can experience her second-hand as well. And this is who Belle is: A buffer between her and anyone she can get close to: The physical distance between her and her parents, the voicemail deal with Kip, the age difference with Nick, and the phone relationship with her clients at work. Belle won’t let anyone close to her, not physically or emotionally, which is some pretty great characterizing by Houck.

All this is happening with the crisis center in the backdrop, where Belle genuinely excels. Her boss, Raymond, calls her in, about halfway through the story, to tell her that she’s doing a great job (calls are monitored for quality assurance, don’t you know). He wants to promote her to the rank of Diamond associate, even though a counselor is supposed to be with the company two years before reaching that rank and Belle isn’t near that time. What this means is, Belle is going to move from simple, non-emergency cases like the woman who hears a dog barking in her house (her dog has long since died) to serious emergencies people at the edge of death, callers in dire situations with only one person to turn to, using their personal crisis call-in device (like the kind we see on TV: “I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up!”). All of a sudden, Belle’s finds herself in a much higher level of human contact, and dependency, than she’s comfortable with.

And that’s as much rundown as I’ll give on “You or a Loved One,” as any more would give away the super-special twists and details that make this story such a delight. Houck has a knack, it appears, for depicting marginally odd protagonists, seemingly normal people with just enough quirk to make them interesting, to make them story-worthy. Belle in today’s selection is probably like a lot of Americans, someone who just wants to do her thing and otherwise be left alone, only it doesn’t work that way, not when people love you, want to interact with you out of genuine human compulsion. The teenaged kid in “The Dot Matrix” only wants to fit in, have the same pinup printout that every other kid in his grade has, even if it means giving up the safety of his D&D game for a bit. And the Spider-man actor in “Hero’s Theater” just wants to play Spider-man, at the Celebration Station, but is bitter he has to go to someone else’s house, play it by their rules. Gabriel Houck’s protagonists, from what I can tell, just want their vision of the universe to be the norm, to keep doing their thing, keep coasting from one day to the next as they bask in the intricacies of life they have grown to enjoy. Conflict arises when everyone else prevents them from doing so, leading to some pretty great fiction. It also makes You or a Loved One an impressive debut collection, one I recommend.

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“We Are Taking Only What We Need” by Stephanie Powell Watts

Hey there, Story366! While it’s not officially summer yet, not for another week, it sure feels like summer. Baseball is suddenly and gloriously the only sport; my kids are going to weird, across-town schools for consolidated summer school; and I just spent a week in Marshfield, Missouri, for Boy Scout camp with my oldest. It’s also hot as balls out, too. Just to think, this is spring!

The real story of Summer 2018 is how every major appliance in our house has broken down. Pretty much since we’ve lived here, we haven’t gotten our dryer to function properly, as often, it takes two to three hour-long cycles to dry a small load—a week ago, we were up to five. We’ve had repairmen out twice to clean the line, figure it out, but soon after they left, things reverted back to their nineteenth-century ways. Our Internet stopped working somewhere around the last week of classes, and not once, not twice, but three times, we had a Mediacom rep out to fix it, each time swearing they’ve discovered the problem, some worn wire, something disconnected, whatever. Right now, it works like 95 percent of the time, but considering we’ve had three visits from tech guys (meaning three days of us as prisoners in our house, waiting around), we should have the best internet on the planet, right? No, 95 percent. The big-pricetag item that terrified us was the air conditioner, which was running but not kicking out cold air (i.e,. an expensive, warm-air fan). We got a guy to come out, it worked for a few hours, then didn’t work again. We called the same guy back—his work was guaranteed—and he took nine freaking days to return and not fix it. Two days after he left, it’s suddenly, and for some reason, working again, and working well. This leads me up to yesterday, when I woke to Karen telling me our fridge was dead, the motor frozen, and since she had to go to work (to, you know, support us), I had to throw away all the bad food, salvage what I could, and clean up a ridiculous mess. The repair person is coming tomorrow: I assume it will be the first of many visits before we can have cold food again, sometime around the Fourth of July.

This morning, my oldest said to me, “We should take bets one what will break next,” completely unprompted, talk of our bad luck, shoddy repair work, and our general frustration not coming up at all since the previous morning, both of us elbows-deep in gray sour cream and mayonnaise. He’s certainly one of us, I can see, aware of the tragic irony it often is to be a Czyzniago. My money’s on the oven. His is on the toaster.

But again, the air works, and after I fiddled with the dryer yesterday, cleaned out the tube and reattached it, the damn thing is working like a dryer is supposed to, about an hour for a load of clothes, even a load of towels. To celebrate, I did eight loads of laundry yesterday, that shit stacking up, so today I had time to get back to the blog, back to books.

Today I read from Stephanie Powell Watts‘ collection We Are Taking Only What We Need, out earlier this year from Ecco as part of their Art of the Story series. I ran across this book while perusing the lit section at Barnes & Noble a bit ago, and quickly picked up a copy (in fact, I grabbed two, giving one to a GA as a year-end gift). It’s been hovering near the top of my pile for about a month now, and for a beautiful, sunny day like today (i.e., hot as balls), I could no longer resist that bright yellow cover, to find out what the woman on the cover is thinking.

I read the first three stories in We Are Taking Only What We Need this morning and enjoyed all of them: “Family Museum of Ancient Postcards,” “If You Hit Randolph County, You’ve Gone Too Far,” and the title story, “We Are Taking Only What We Need,” which I’ll write about today. All three stories share strikingly similar themes, settings, and styles, and all are told from the point of view of a young African American girl living in the South, only from the perspective of that young girl when she’s older, looking back. I thought for a bit that maybe these characters were all the same, that this is a novel in stories, as the girl’s father in the first and third stories are both named Roger; further inspection leads me to believe that no, these are different stories and different young girls, as other family member names and minor details prove inconsistent. Still, these stories give off a similar vibe and use overlapping plot points, such as infidelity and deadbeat moms, enough to make this book wholly coherent. At least in the first three entries.

“We Are Taking Only What We Need” is about Portia, a young girl whose mother has just left the family, which includes her, her brother, Cal, and her father, Roger. We don’t know exactly why the mom is leaving, only it’s to move in with a girlfriend (and the girlfriend’s boyfriend), to not be the mom anymore. With Roger having to work and Portia and Cal too young to stay home all day, they’re forced into a babysitter. Roger chooses a young white girl named Tammy, who seems as foreign to Portia as an alien; an aunt suggests the children no get too close, as “White people tend to smell like wet dog.” Portia is intrigued at this wholly different human, but it wears off soon when she realizes that Tammy is doing the bare minimum to get by until Roger gets home and pays her, that there’s no real bond, no care or affection.

That changes one Saturday, however, when Tammy shows up with Roger home, Roger announcing to Portia that the two ladies will spend the day together at the flea market. Portia finds it weird, as she doesn’t need a babysitter, not when her father is home from work, yet off they go, to this vast shopping land, not a penny in Portia’s pocket. They don’t need money, though, as Tammy seems like the belle of the market, everyone coming up to her, hugging her, offering her free stuff. By the end of the trip, Tammy and Portia leave with a box of newborn puppies, sworn by their former owner to be of pure breed, even though their father is a German shepherd and the mother is something else.

Portia and Tammy arrive with the dogs, to the delight of Cal and the anger and bewilderment of Roger. Tammy proclaims that they have a dog for everyone (like Game of Thrones!), one for Portia and one for Cal and one for her and Roger. For Portia, it’s suddenly clear what’s going on between Tammy and her father, that they’re closeness and occasional touching is no accident. Roger, who vehemently dislikes the idea of dogs, especially those around the house, acquiesces, and Portia understands it’s because Tammy has a spell on her father, this white girl in short-shorts, half his age.

Okay, good setup for a story. Still, I’m not sure how deeply to go into the plot of “We Are Taking Only What We Need,” as we’re not yet halfway in at this point and there’s quite a few twists and turns. I won’t go into too much more detail, but will remind you that I mentioned infidelity before, so there’s more of that on the way, along a trigger warning: If you’re not into stories where dogs die, especially cute little puppies, then maybe this ain’t the story for you.

On top of what happens, though, this story, like its two predecessors in the collection, strikes an intriguing balance between what the young teenage protagonist thinks about the story as it’s happening, against what she thinks about the same events years later, when she’s old, wiser, and telling her tale. So, there’s an innocence to the stories in Powell Watts’ book, an unreliability, but that’s sort of canceled out, often, by that same person translating each particular lesson into the broader scope. It’s an interesting way to tell a story and an even more interesting way to read one. Powell Watts didn’t invent this technique, but she’s as good at it as anyone I’ve read.

There’s also a great feeling of place in these stories, like they surely could only take place in the South, in Powell Watts’ native North Carolina, from the food, to the landscapes, to the heat. Most of all, I enjoyed the window these stories gave me to another region, another culture, to people who may not look like me or didn’t grow up in the same place as me, but are so delicately rendered, I feel like I know them, that I was immersed—Powell Watts has that power as a writer.

“We Are Taking Only What We Need Here” is a beautiful and tragic story, one that stuck with me even though I read it first, read two other stories, but still wanted to write about it. I feel for older, perspective-laden Portia, even now, even more than I felt for young Portia as all the events of the story befell her. I think it’s because I’m getting old and am starting to understand how the residual effect of something terrible, over time, can really add up, can wear on you. That’s the way this fine collection speaks to me. But there’s so much more about it admire.

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“Building Cities in the Desert” by Jeffrey Condran

Happy Saturday, Story366! I love summer!

While I was writing Thursday’s post on Karen Donovan, some AC guys were at my house, then not at my house, then at my house again, fixing our AC. We had been suffering through some mild outside heat lately, heat that’s intensified inside our big old house by at least ten degrees. With temps rising into the nineties this week, it was becoming unbearable, so we broke down and called somebody, hoping for better bad news than the worst news: the death sentence. In NCAA basketball, the death sentence is a ban from postseason play for a year. In life, it means they kill you because you killed someone else. In AC, it’s the person from the AC place telling you your AC system is shot and you need to install an entire new system, which runs into the thousands of dollars. Of course, we were fearing the worst, that we’d get that death sentence, that they guy would tell us that we fried our unit (“If only you done this __________ incredibly easy thing, you would have saved a fortune!”); one year, we didn’t unfasten our outside hose from the nozzle and it ended up costing us $600 in pipe and wall repairs because we didn’t know that connected hoses for some reason cause pipes to freeze and burst.

Anyway, we were afraid if we wanted air this year, we’d have to sell one of our children, both of whom we’ve grown fond of. I grew up without air conditioning in my house until I was 13; my wife, who moved around a lot, had it and didn’t have it, depending where she lived. Last week, to avoid the inevitable, I found every fan we owned—four box fans and three oscillators—and had those set up, but after a week of that—you can’t hear shit in your house with seven fans running, all the ambient noise, not the TV, not the doorbell, not each other—and the coming summer, we decided to find out what this was going to cost us.

Luckily, we for now just needed a coolant recharge, which, with labor, cost us a paltry $297. We went with a new company, a guy just trying to get jobs and make a name for himself, so he gave us a big discount He and his brother came out at ten, told us what the story was, then took off on another call as he let our line defrost (it had frozen). Then he came back for another four hours. By five he was done, but had put in five hours—times two guys—and with freon costing $70 per pound, he only make $157. So, we got off cheap, but now I feel bad. I feel cool, but bad at the same time. We got a deal. Maybe too good of one.

Yesterday, as the temperature slowly ticked down, I read a few stories from Jeffrey Condron‘s collection A Fingerprint Repeated, out in 2013 from Press 53. I met Jeffrey at AWP this year, but knew of his work, and that he was editor of the fine press, Braddock Avenue Books, who have put out many collections I’ve covered on this blog. This was the first venture into anything but a story here or there, so I was excited to get into the book, to see what Condron really does.

In the few stories I’ve read, and the others I’ve perused, Condron certainly seems to have some themes that he employs over and over in his stories. Most of the pieces seem to involve an American white male, a guy who travels overseas a lot, involved in a romantic (or purely sexual) relationship with a younger Arab woman. The woman always seems to be married, to an Arab man she’s much more compatible with, making the relationships with the white Americans lurid, though admittedly passionate. The women in these stories seem to be lawyers, while the men seems to be from or about to settle in Pittsburgh. Two stories, “Praha” and the title story, “A Fingerprint Repeated,” depict these relationships after they’ve ended and the feelings have gone bitter. In fact, I read those two stories first and they have almost identical setups, only one is told from the white dude’s POV and the other from the Arab woman’s. I checked to make sure we weren’t dealing with the same characters here, but we weren’t, as one white guy is named Henry and the other Jonathan.

The third story, I read, “Bulding Cities in the Desert,” does feature a white guy named Jonathan, though this Jonathan is profoundly different from the Jonathan in the title story (that Jonathan is kind of a psycho). Reading through, I’d say it might be the same guy, only older, wiser, and maybe kinder in “Building Cities in the Desert”. I liked the complexity and general feel of “Building Cities in the Desert,” so I’ve chosen that one to write about today.

“Building Cities in the Desert” takes place in California, and as mentioned, features a middle-aged guy, Jonathan, and his relationship with Yasmin, his daughter’s childhood friend, a single mother who’s returned to the area after being gone and needs some help getting her house in order. Jonathan, the only person she knows and trusts, starts coming over to take care of things, setting up a lot bunch of storylines and questions. Condron’s pretty clever here, as he uses a slow rate of reveal, the true backstory of this relationship remaining a mystery for at least half the story. Where has Yasmin been? Where is her son’s father? What happened to Jonathan’s daughter, or for that matter, anyone else he knows? Condron is wise to establish one tension here—the growing relationship between Jonathan and Yasmin—before answering any of that. His patience gives the story an uncanny, intense feel, making this possible union—an older man and his daughter’s former playmate—seem even more eyebrow-raising, maybe even salacious.

Eventually, as the two grow closer, we get more of the backstory, more of the setup: Yasmin’s husband, Rami, was arrested after a terrorist incident, perhaps because of his ties to his Palestinian cousin, and is simply gone, being detained with no hint of when or if he’ll return. Yasmin is in some ways a widow, though without the finality, in need of help, but also lonely and growing lonelier. Jonathan, just as lonely, has an equally complex history, as years before, he’d abandoned his family (to, you guessed it, work in the Middle East [and perhaps have a string of affairs with Arab women]); this abandonment includes his daughter, Margaret, Yasmin’s friend, whom he hasn’t seen or talked to her in over twenty years. Margaret is a constant elephant in the room—she and Yasmin keep in touch—and there’s times when Jonathan wants to ask Yasmin about her, though he knows the truth: Margaret refuses to ever have anything to do with him again. This makes Yasmin both a conduit and a stand-in, which complicates the fatherly/handyman relationship quite a bit.

Because this is a short story and Condron’s a good writer, it doesn’t stop there: Jonathan starts feeling more for Yasmin than just nostalgia or comfort, and after a night of drinking, Yasmin’s son, Sami, in bed, the two become more intimate, Jonathan spending the night; it’s clear, however, that the couple do not have sex, but just spend the night holding each other, providing comfort, filling the gaps in their lives with familiar faces. Still, Sami catches Jonathan peeing in the yard the next morning (so as to not wake Yasmin), Jonathan sees Sami come to conclusions, conclusions that Jonathan both wants and doesn’t want.

I won’t go any further into the plot of “Building Cities in the Desert,” as that would be giving away too much. This is a fine, complicated story, featuring warm but desperate people, an anti-hero as protagonist, and all that suspense Condron can muster, skillfully telling us what we need to know only when we need to know it. I really like the geometry of the relationships here, and informed by the previous stories in the book, I’m able to form a lush tapestry of emotions and situations, Condron easily weaving them together into good fiction. I liked the book in general, too, the consistent and unique themes, how Condron has apparently chosen some variables, and in order to make the collection cohesive, has used, reused, and shuffled these variables, exploring all aspects of the theme. The end product is a tight, readable, and provocative collection.

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