August 8, 2018: “A Bright and Pleading Dagger” by Nicole Rivas

Hello there, Story366! As always, I’m excited to be posting. It’s Wednesday, I’ll be traveling today, but still, wanted to get this one in before I left (more on that in a bit).

On Monday, in my Helen DeWitt post, I started by discussing my slip on Facebook, how I got baited into a political argument, which I swore, about ten years ago, that I’d never do. It was a pretty simple discussion and everyone involved seemed rational, but most of all, I had a pretty clear and intelligent and undebatable point to make. Because it’s FB and people are people, it soon turned into another stupid debate, with base pile-on, reaching lows in racism and human intelligence. It was a slip: Never would I make that mistake on social media again.

Then, in the last couple of days, I got overly active on FB, taking part in discussions, liking things at an abnormal rate, and yes, posting points of my own. I made a comment about a silly response on my summer teaching evaluations, which kind of backfired, as people interpreted it as me feeling bad/sorry for myself because a single student didn’t like me—I was really just pointing out a silly thing someone said. This morning I noted that a lot of my friends’ kids were starting school today, how weird that is—I always started the day after Labor Day—and that started a really interesting discussion on year-round schools. So much activity after swearing off activity. You can track me down on FB if you want in on those obviously inspiring topics.

My interest in FB comes and goes in waves. Sometimes I think it’s silly, to share my thoughts, to seek out opinions, or have the desire to be a part of a community. Weeks will go by, me working through life’s ups and downs, through its anecdotes, in my own head. On other days, like this week, I want to check in with the world and for the world to count me as present. I’m glad I’m not the person who posts everything that comes into his head (One of my favorite Simpsons quotes: “Do you say everything you think?” Reverend Lovejoy’s daughter to Bart), but if I’m going to be on social media and expect my friends to like posts about Story366, Moon City Press/Review, and the cute things my kids do and say, I need to be more of a citizen. I need to play the game. Or at least say, “Present” when my name is called during attendance.

Nicole Rivas’ chapbook, A Bright and Pleading Dagger, was released today from Rose Metal Press and since I’ve had this for a week, I’ve been looking forward to posting on it on its release date. I don’t get to do that too often—I usually find out about books when I see them in stores or talked about on FB—and it makes me feel like I’m current, like I’m doing the book its greatest service, like I’m playing the right way. I also like to think it adds something to the book birthday experience for the author, to pile on the event with some kind words, to add something, even if it’s tiny, to the phenomenon of having a book released. I think a lot of that was sucked up by the five-star review Roxane Gay gave to A Bright and Pleading Dagger this past Monday—Story366 is neat, I think, but I’m not Roxane. Yet here I am, ready to give it a go.

Roxane Gay is of course spot-on with her review, too, as Rivas’ book is outrageously good. I don’t do a lot of fiction chapbooks—there aren’t a lot of fiction chapbooks—but I do like reviewing them here because I’m giving ink to these smaller projects. Plus, I can usually read the whole book, give a more comprehensive write-up. I indeed read all of A Bright and Pleading Dagger this morning and can say without hesitation that Nicole Rivas is truly a gifted writer, one of the best new voices I’ve discovered for this project, and instantly one of my favorite short-short writers in the history of the world. It’s like the first time I read Lindsay Hunter or Amelia Gray or J. David Stevens—authors who changed me as a reader and writer. Rivas is among these authors for me now.

Like all good short writers, especially the narrative type (which Rivas certainly is), the real key to success is establishing a plot or theme, a conflict, and a setting right away, hooking the reader in with the conceit, then just going with it. It’s what Stevens does so well and what Rivas is equally as good at, cinching the rope around my neck in the first sentence or two. The opening story, “Death of an Ortolan” does it, setting up a date between a nineteen-year-old woman and her fifty-year-old gynecologist, Penny. In “The Comedienne,” the speaker regales of being booed off stage at a formal brunch after an unsavory shellfish-on-genital barb. “The Staring Contest” pits its protagonist on a speed-date with the oldest man on earth. In each one of these stories, Rivas just takes off from these first lines and goes, the premise out there, Rivas running with it, everything established that needs to be established.

Oh, and all three of those starts? All of them are fantastic ideas for stories, aren’t they?

Today, I’ll write a little about the title story, “A Bright and Pleading Dagger,” as I like to write about title stories, yeah, but this story, at the end of the chapbook, is also a bit different. Rivas uses a lot more dialogue in “A Bright and Pleading Dagger”—most of her stories are made up of summarized prose—and it’s a page or so longer than the other pieces as well. There’s also a bit of a frame around the story, which is hard to pull off in a short. So, the title story probably a bit more like a short story than a short, but since those clear definitions don’t exist, not in any text, who cares, right?

“A Bright and Pleading Daggers” is about a teenage girl who works with her friend Jada at the local grocery store, cashiering and bagging and such. The story starts with Jada not showing up for work one morning and the narrator feeling nervous about it, taking breaks to text her, worried something’s happened. From there, we break backward from the frame to the night before, where the girls are walking home from a movie and are picked up by a couple of older men, men who just want to have some fun … men who promise to take them home, but only after they’ve “spent some time.”

As you might guess, getting picked up by older guys—30 and 26—them dictating such conditions for safe return, doesn’t head down any positive direction. Since it’s only four pages long, I really won’t go into the plot any more, leaving you something to discover, letting your imagination to wander. As you might guess, he story picks back up with the frame, which is equally important to the piece’s success. An interaction between our hero and her store manager—and older guy named Dennis—is perhaps as telling as anything that happened to the girls on their encounter, fitting in with the strong feminist themes Rivas uses throughout her collection. It’s a scary and telling story about women who don’t have power. In the end, it’s as much about friendship as it is about any of the nastier business Rivas includes.

I would expect we’ll see a lot more from Nicole Rivas in the future, this small sampling revealing a talent that so obviously demands an audience. I look forward to seeing what’s next, but in the meantime, hope I’ve inspired you to click that link above and read A Bight and Pleading Dagger ASAP.