March 3, 2020: “Vinegar Tasting” by Jeanne M. Leiby

Hello, Story366!

Okay, so final update, really, on the AWP trip: I, and Moon City Press, have canceled our trip. I am in Springfield, will remain here all week, even though the conference is going on. I made this decision right before I posted yesterday and dropped that info in at the last second. Here’s the story, in full, what led me and the press to make this choice.

When I woke up yesterday morning, I didn’t think there was any chance I wasn’t going to AWP. I had spent the last week prepping the press’s materials, then most of the weekend getting myself organized. Really, I had labored for the six weeks before that to get our two new titles done, printed, and shipped in time to take to the conference: Moon City Review 2020 and Our Brains and the Brains of Miniature Sharks by Pablo Piñero Stillmann. We were ready for this conference. We were looking forward to it. And we had a lot invested in it, timewise and financially.

By the time I had my boys off to school, I started seeing posts on FB about people pulling out. I’d heard about San Antonio fears before yesterday—those Japanese cruise ship people quarantined there on a military base—but I wasn’t worried: They were in quarantine on a military base. I went about my day, further preparing for the trip, without thinking much of it. One or two people had cold feet. I went to buy shoes. I bought a new phone case and screen protector. I ordered a microphone for MCP’s offsite reading and picked it up, the bar’s mic broken. I was scratching things off my list.

That was around noon, around when I started seeing more and more people post that they were canceling their plains. When some very good friends of mine, Dustin Parsons and Aimee Nezhukumatathil, pulled out, mentioning how they just couldn’t bring this virus home to their kids—who are about the same age as my boys—I started to really pay attention. They got me thinking. I called the Karen on my way home and started to express concern: What was I getting into?

Things avalanched from there. At home, I checked social media and a lot more people were pulling out. Presses, too, a a few events canceled as well. That’s when I found out the mistakingly released quarantined patient, a woman from that Japanese cruise. She had tested negative for the virus twice, was released, and then they found a positive test—only after she checked into a local hotel, went to the mall, and ate at the food court. My “I’m not worried—they’re in quarantine” feeling suddently disintegrated.

Meanwhile, three of the eight students scheduled to ride to San Antonio in the van contacted me, pulling out. They said they were uncomfortable going to San Antonio. As was I.

I immediately contacted the other faculty going, as well as our department Chair, and got a dialogue going. By the time I made it to campus and we all had a discussion in the Chair’s office, the mayor of San Antonio had declared the city a State of Disaster. Word on social media was coming through, from hush-hush AWP employees and their close friends, that the conference was going to be canceled. The Director of AWP posted the mayor’s news, then said AWP’s news was coming. Her posting of the “San Antonio Declares State of Emergency” article, then saying her news was coming next, had to mean they were canceling the conference. Right? One logically flowed into the other.

On top of all this, Missouri State University’s protocol—which was up on the Chair’s computer screen—was for everyone returning to campus from an affected area to immediately report to screening at the health center; if anyone in the van was sick, from anything, let alone  postive for the virus, we’d all be quarantined for two weeks.

At the same time, San Antonio announced they were reserving the right to deny access to and departure from the city—we could drive there, twelve hours, and be denied entry, or worse, get there, see things go to shit, and be stuck in virus-laden San Antonio indefinitely.

We made a decision: We weren’t going. We immediately started to cancel hotels, flights, microphones, vans, and anything else we’d reserved.

My shoes, the phone case, and screen protector, not to mention last week’s haircut? Well, I need all that stuff, anyway.

So, that’s our story, how we came to our conclusion and acted, based on the information we had at the time. The Chair was super-supportive, told us not to worry about the money—as it turns out, we’re not getting all that much refunded (though the mic people were super-cool).

Most of all, everyone agreed that we needed to keep our students safe. Ourselves safe (Hey remember the Sickpocalypse?). And our children safe. The further I get from this decision, the more I believe we made the right choice. I will miss being at AWP this year, all those people I know and love. But I don’t regret being here today or this week, not at all.

For today’s post, I chose a book by a friend who passed away, tragically in a car accident, in 2011: Jeanne M. Leiby. Jeanne and I knew each other from the lit mag world, from AWP—why I thought of her book today—seeing one another every year for ten years or so. Jeanne also took one of my stories for The Florida Review when she was Editor-in-Chief there, then had a hand in one of my most notable publications, The Southern Review, twice, while their editor. I’ll not forget when Drew Ervin called me and told me she’d died. Shocking, the circumstances of her death, how young she was. It was a sad call—Drew knew her better than I did, having served with her at The Southern Review for several years, and was pretty choked up. Tragic.

So, on a day that I’m not going to AWP, I chose Jeanne’s book, a fine a time as any to visit Downriver, out in 2007 from Carolina Wren Press (now merged with John F. Blair, Publisher into Blair).

I read several stories from Downriver tonight, stories set in Leiby’s native Detroit and its suburbs. These are stories about a damaged, downtrodden city, its residents full of spirit, full of memories, all of them waiting for a comeback, for some good news. Most of the factories have closed, leaving abandoned properties that scar the region, with their reminders of what used to be, as well as the their chemicals and poisons flowing into the air and water. The people in these stories are down, but not out, which is maybe an oversimplification of Detroiters, but it’s a mild stereotype, of sorts, that Leiby’s working with here. Having lived not that far from Detroit for eighteen years—Bowling Green was a little over an hour south—I guess I’ve witnessed this image of the city, holistically, at the very least.

Stories I read that stand out include the opener, “Viking Burial,” a short about a son trying to send his father off in an old tradition. “A Place Alone” is about a barber, in the wake of the Nixon resignation, trying his best to raise his daughters, but feeling a tremendous sense of failure. “Bosun’s Chair” is a metafictional piece about a window washer, a bit of departure stylistically from the other stories I read, but still maintaining the same setting and themes as the other stories.

Tonight I’m focusing on “Vinegar Tasting,” my favorite of the bunch. “Vinegar Tasting” is about Anna, a woman who’s seeing a man named Al Rosa. Al and Anna are sleeping together, and after, Al  often complains about Anna’s performance in bed, describing the noises she makes, the faces she presents, her general demeanor, all in a less-than-flattering light. Anna is a bit rough around the edges, Al claims, too much grunting and wincing for his tastes. Yet, he lets her cook him breakfast before he disappears until their next encounter.

Al indeed keeps coming back and Anna keeps having him. Al seems important, well off in the greater suburban Detroit community. Anna, her whole life, has been dreaming of someone like Al to come along and give her a better life. He’s come along, gives her things, but it’s not what she wants, his post-coital critiques aside. He’s just there for sex, it’s clear, and some kind conversation.

One thing Al gives Anna is flowers. Al has a charge account at the local florist, who just happens to be Anna’s longtime best friend, Dan. Dan fills Anna in on Al’s floral habits, his tendency to send bouquets to his home address to someone named Patty—Al Rosa has a wife, it seems, which explains why he shows up at odd hours and leaves at even odder ones. Dan, by the way, is the man Anna’s mother thought Anna would marry, and still does; Anna and Dan in fact lost their virginity to each other when they were fifteen, but no real interest that kind of life has ever come up. It’s the safe bet, but Anna would rather have Al, his mean spirit, his unreliability. You love who you love, I guess.

Dan also talks to Anna about the state of the town, how it’s really shit. Hope presents itself in the form of a new proposal, to turn the abandoned BASF chemical plant into a golf course. This is one metaphor Leiby employs rather well, the idea that the ugly reminders of the past could be covered up with green grass and sport—the chemicals would still be stirring underneath, though, poisoning the club members as they teed off, basked in the glory of the clubhouse. Dan doesn’t believe the course will ever be built. He’s the same kind of metaphor, by the way, sending his arrangements off, a splash of color to brighten the dreary, to ease the malcontent.

Wouldn’t you know it, Al Rosa is the kind of bigwig in town who has a hand in the golf course renovation, the gentrification of the city—something that’s already happened downriver; Leiby mentions her title, downriver, in all her stories it seems, the symbol of those who have already moved on, who have prospered further out. Anyway, Al finally offers Anna the one thing she’s been longing for, asking her to escort him to a fundraiser for the course, a fancy shindig/tasting that Anna is more than happy to attend—maybe it’s not just about fucking, she figures, that she’s good enough to be seen with Al in pubic. There, Anna is fastened to Al’s elbow like a trophy, no one at this gala aware of Patty, apparently, Al free to flaunt his mistress for all to see.

Soon, Al and Anna reach a vinegar-tasting station, where the couple clean their palates and then down shots of flavored vinegars (for cooking, I guess?). Al puts his back his like shots while Anna chokes on hers, spitting them out. Al teaches Anna how to taste the vinegar, rolling it around in her mouth before spitting it back into the little plastic cups. It’s another great metaphor for Anna and Al and for Detroit, everyone expected to savor the bitterness, then spit it out, only to seek out the next portion.

I won’t say where “Vinegar Tasting” goes from there, but it’s a beatifully sad story about a person who just wants something more, something she used to know, perhaps had been promised, someone willing to find it, no matter what it costs. Anna is stronger than that, though, not just a desperate woman, but a woman willing to compromise if she can somehow come out even, even a little ahead. I loved reading her story, getting to know her, seeing how she navigated her world.

The last time I talked to Jeanne Leiby, it was at AWP 2010 in Denver. She was a Pole, like me, and told me she had been taking Polish lessons, had been getting better, that she wanted to go to Poland and speak fluently with the natives. We talked about John Paul II, like a couple of buscias, and then we parted. A year later, she died, and now, nine years after that, I finally got to Downriver, which she signed for me that last time we talked. It’s such a good book, one of the best I’ve read about specific place, her fluid, well crafted, and compelling stories painting a picture of the city she loved so much. Sto lat, Jeanne Leiby.