“They Would Be Waiting” by Donald Quist

Hello, Story366! Been a while, about ten weeks, about how long since the semester began. Maybe even longer. I remember visiting my family in Chicago, having read several stories from a book and being ready to write a post … but then something happened. It maybe have been my battery dying in my mother’s driveway, me not yet knowing it was the battery, me and my boys delayed for a few hours while I tried to figure it out. After that, it may have been some other mini-emergency, and after that, me deciding I’d have to reread the stories from said collection before posting, then me not being able to find the book. Soon after, prep for the semester loomed, came, was done, followed by the semester itself, which, ten weeks in, has not been an easy semester. In any case, it’s been a couple of months.

Oddly, I also just noticed that September and October have been the two busiest months, in terms of traffic, for Story366 … ever. What makes that odd is I haven’t posted or even thought much about this blog, yet it’s posting strangely high numbers. Weird.

I come back to you today because, firstly, it’s been too long and I’ve been itching to read some new fiction. Also, my semester has calmed a bit, between workshop rounds and publishing projects for Moon City Press, so I have time to read and write about books. But more than anything, I wanted to get this post in because today’s featured author, Donald Quist, is reading at MSU this evening—in a little over an hour—and I’ve been excited about him, his book, and his reading.

Today, Quist journeyed down from Columbia, where he’s in the PhD program at Mizzou (studying with my pals Trudy Lewis and Phong Nguyen, the lucky bastard). He visited a class on campus today and will visit a couple more tomorrow, and then he’s off to Texas for the Texas Book Festival. But we’re lucky to have him for a couple of days, for him to share his work, his knowledge, and his experiences with our students and community here in Springfield.

I’ve read a good hunk of Quist’s new collection, For Other Ghosts, just out a week or two ago from Awst Press. I’d not read much of Quist’s work before that, just a story or two online. After working my way through Quist’s eclectic, sensitive, and carefully crafted stories, I’m so glad to have come across this work, so glad to be celebrating the book’s release tonight. The stories were easy to gobble up, one after another, each of them completely different from the previous. Yet, at the same time, Quist is able to keep to his theme: the ghosts, or the people that his protagonists have lost, the ones who have stayed with them.

I could have written about any story in For Other Ghosts, and almost picked “Lolita Rattapong’s New Microwave,” a story made up entirely of interrogatives, one in which Lolita’s new microwave, the fabric of our universe, are questioned. Quist gets really philosophical and even metaphysical in other stories, such as “She Is a Cosmos,” stories where there isn’t a whole lot of action to the plot, but a whole lot of action in the characters thinking about things. Quist’s whit and smarts and delicious prose make it all work.

Today I’m writing about “They Would Be Waiting” instead, the lead story to the collection, one that has a pretty complicated plot. The story takes place in Ghana, where our unnamed narrator sits in a van with thirteen of his relatives, escorting his grandmother, inside her coffin in a tailing pickup truck, to her burial, back in her home village. The convoy has already stopped for sodas and bathroom breaks and a couple of military checkpoints, but the story opens with a third checkpoint, one that doesn’t go so smoothly. Immediately, I was grabbed with the setting, the situation, the whole conceit, which is undeniably great fiction writing.

As the soldiers at the checkpoint examine the driver’s papers and question the purpose of their travel, the narrator introduces us to his relatives, a colorful cast of … well, it’s a group of relatives in a van, which is a lot like a group of relatives convening for Thanksgiving dinner, only in a van. And in Ghana. With armed soldiers. There are oddballs, stalwarts, and people who are less noticeable, but when mixed together, in a tense situation, interesting things are going to happen. And they do, in the van, outside the van, and when the two intermingle.

Among the family members we meet is Uncle Aric, the Danish professor who married the narrator’s father’s sister when she was 19 and studying abroad, a man who was described by his new wife as  “foremost expert on the African continent,” without irony; Uncle Aric is, as you may have guessed, a white foreigner, and a loud, arrogant, opinionated one at that. Maybe he’s not the best person to be talking for the group, interacting with the soldiers—who again, have machine guns—while the narrator’s father just wants to get to his mother’s funeral on time and without embarrassing, let alone tragic, incident.

Because this is a short story and nothing should ever happen that’s easy, the soldiers are not so kind to the caravan, asking a lot of questions, asking for everyone’s ID, and when they produce ID, asking for more and better ID. Eventually, the driver is removed from the van and taken behind the wall of a makeshift building, where … well, you can guess what happens to someone who’s giving soldiers a hard time at a checkpoint.

I won’t go into any further detail on “They Would Be Waiting,” except to say that Quist throws us a curve at the end of the story, deciding to end his tale less than simply. He doesn’t finish the story of the checkpoint, not in a direct way, but at what appears to be the climax, jumps ahead in time, shifts perspective, and provides us with another type of ending entirely. Still satisfying, and probably better than seeing the traditional narrative through, a nice choice, letting me, and other readers, know what we’re in for in For Other Ghosts.

I’d like to pontificate on why I like Donald Quist’s writing further, but really, I have to slip some shoes on, grab some quarters for the meter, and pick him up for his reading, which is in forty minutes. It’s great to be Story366ing again—I should welcome an author into town every day!

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