June 2, 2018: “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.