February 8, 2020: “Halfway House” by Rachel Groves

Good Saturday to you, Story366!

Today’s Pinewood Derby went off without any kind of a hitch. It was my seventh Derby as a parent, the second for this younger boy, and somehow I’m still clueless on how to make a good car. When I was a kid, I ran five cars in five years and took last in every heat, in every race, though I had good-looking cars because my dad was artistic and that’s what he put his time into. Me, I’m just happy to get a car on the track with four functional wheels, which hasn’t always happened, but did happen today. I detailed the troubles we had with cutting this car in yesterday’s post, but the process got easier and better from there. My son’s car did not win the Pinewood Derby, and in fact, was among the first cars eliminated. But he did win one of his heats, so for five seconds he got to bask in a victory. He was a good sport, too, congratulating the winner, a kid from his den. After, we all went out for smoothies. I will call today a victory every single time.

But next year ….

For today’s post, I spent some time with Rachel Groves’ collection When We Were Someone Else, out in 2018 from BkMk Press as winner of their G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize. Groves is another writer I was not familiar with before starting her book for this project, and as always, I relished the chance to see what was inside.

I started with the first story in the collection, “Halfway House,” which I’ll write about today. “Halfway House” is about Tess, a tenth-grader who has sights set on running away from home. Her parents fight constantly, pretty much ignoring her, which makes up most of here problems. She’s also missing Jonah, her brother who is a senior but had to go into rehab for drug abuse and a second suicide attempt. The parents fight about Jonah, how to handle him, whose fault it all was, but they also seem to just fight. Tess isn’t getting anything from family life and wants out.

Tess’s sole confidante is her next-door neighbor/best friend, Margo, who has a car and whisks Tess away when Tess needs it most. Or the girls hole up in Tess’s room and listen to records to drown out the arguing. Once a week, she also visits Jonah in rehab, but that only makes her depressed, makes her parents fight more, and makes her want to expedite the getaway. Before long, she and Margo have a plan to head upstate on Thanksgiving, hide away in an aunt’s off-season cabin, and get crappy jobs. It’s unclear how this is long-term better—or how they won’t immediately be found and sent home—but remember, Tess is 15 and isn’t yet great at thinking ahead. Plus, she really, really wants out.

On her way out the door, literally, Tess finds out Jonah is coming home in a couple of days and suddenly Tess doesn’t want to go. Things at home will be better, of course, as she won’t be alone. For her to leave would also place Jonah in the same situation she wanted out of. She calls Margo, who was ready to run away—Margo’s parents are getting divorced. Margo is mad, but she gets over it in thirty seconds and the girls are friends again. Things are looking up.

Because this is a short story, things take another downturn. Margo gets a boyfriend, meaning no time for Jess. Jonah also has a harder time adjusting to home life than he thought and checks himself into the titular Halfway House, where he has to room with a middle-aged crack addict who’s taken a shine to Jess. Tess’s parents won’t stop fighting. Things are suddenly worse than ever and the chance to run away seems to have passed.

That’s as far as I really want to get with the plot, but Groves does a nice job in bringing this one home. What the story is about isn’t whether or not Jess runs away to her magical gas station job up north. It’s really about her identity as a character and a person, her outlook. Groves, it turns out, was writing Jess as an unreliable narrator the whole time—subtly, I’d argue—as maybe things were never as bad as she thought; certainly, none of it was about her. Not to undermine her or her experience, but in the end, Jess has to come of age or get over it, the choice Groves explores in her fine story.

I also enjoyed a couple of other stories in Groves’ collection. “The Person at the Window” is a complex piece about an elementary school teacher, unhappy with her marriage, who wonders if her husband is the peeping tom terrifying their neighborhood. My favorite might be “Smells Like Leslie Gray Martin,” about a high school freshman obsessed with the most popular senior in school. This time, the narrator is a bit more obviously unreliable and the results are pretty damn funny.

Rachel Groves writes solid stories in When We Were Someone Else. I see how that title forms a theme, how the three women I met all dream of something else, something better, Groves putting them in the position to either go get it or be creatively obstructed. Glad to have read this book, to have gotten the chance to get to know her work.