March 7, 2020: “Love Is No Small Thing” by Meghan Kenny

It’s Saturday, Story366, Day 4 of No-AWP. This is about the time I’d be struggling between two mindsets: On one hand, I’d want to indulge myself as much as I could, knowing I wouldn’t be at AWP again for a year. I’d have a good meal, go to as many readings as I could, drink a lot, and try to show my students the absolute best time I could. I’d also pick up every book, i.e., short story collection, I saw. On the other hand, I’d wonder if I’d spent too much money already and try to be conservative. I’d think that with a twelve-hour van ride in the morning, I’d maybe want to have a sensible dinner, maybe see an early-evening reading, then head to the hotel. I could call the Karen. I could talk to the boys. I could call my mom and let her know I was safe and having a good time in an exotic city. I could pack my suitcase so that when that early alarm went off, all I’d have to do is roll into clothes and head out, bang on Joel Coltharp‘s door to see if he was ready to go get the students, hit the road.

More than likely, I’d go with the former, go nuts and regret it somewhat then next morning. It’s okay, because I save for this trip every year, plus get some of it—$57 a day for food—reimbursed. The books I can write off as part of this blog and my teaching, and the alcohol … well, that just comes right off the top. But this congregation of writers and friends only happens once a year—or once every other year, as it stands now—so I doubt I’d show any restraint.

Have fun, writer friends. Go nuts. See you next year in Kansas City.

Today, I chose Meghan Kenny‘s book Love Is No Small Thing, out in 2017 from LSU Press as part of their Yellow Shoe Fiction series. I had not read any of Kenny’s stories before today, so this was all new to me. Without further ado ….

“Love Is Not Small Thing” is the lead story as well as the title story, and I started there. It’s the tale of Jenni, a thirty-five-year-old fourth-grade teacher who’s been dating the same man, thirty-eight-year-old Val, for three years. She loves Val and is ready to settle down, get married, have kids. She’s not depicted as desperate or baby-crazy or anything like that, but very sensibly just wants to know what’s going on: Is this relationship going anywhere or does she need to move on?

As it turns out, Val makes her decision pretty easy. One night, she’s sitting in his house and he gets a phone call, obviously from another woman, a woman he’d met the night before, a woman he’s more than happy to flirt with right in front her. He heads downstairs after a bit, but Jenni can still hear him, as he’s not really trying to hide anything. When he gets off the phone and Jenni confronts him, he suddenly turns into the biggest dick on earth, saying fuck you, I can do whatever I want. This is a key part of the story, obviously, but also kind of mysterious: Is Val that much of an ass, or is this his way of cutting ties, telling her three years is enough? I don’t see Jenni as that unreliable, to be blinded by the cool, handsome asshole character. But maybe.

Jenni solves the mystery, somewhat, when Val goes out and leaves her in his house. There, amidst some sadness and self-pity, she decides to snoop. In his desk he finds a whole a stack of women’s names and phone numbers scribbled on various pieces of paper: He keeps trophies. And, this has been going on for quite some time. This is not Val amicably breaking up with her or straying, bored with what they’ve have. He’s a habitual cheater and liar. Jenni’s got to move on, but not before exacting a little revenge. I won’t reveal that here, as that would be revealing too much.

By the way, did I mention all of this takes place on Halloween, Jenni dressed as a prom queen and Val as Jimmy Connors? I’m sure there’s all kinds of hidden meaning there—especially if you equate Jenni with Carrie—but I’ll let you sort that out as well.

I read a couple of other stories after. “These Things Happen” is about George, who’s having breakfast at his favorite diner when a guy from his country club walks in, invites himself to sit down, and starts having breakfast, too. George just wants him to go, but the guy, Frank, has other plans. Things get tense, then weird. “All These Lovely Boys” features a local cameraman whose adult son, Kirk, likes to wear women’s clothing, who’s dancing in a ballet, as a ballerina, that our guy has been hired to film.

All three of the stories I read have one thing in common: A protagonist dealing with another person. Their position in the story, and in life, seemingly based on their relationship with the other. Jenni defines herself by what will happen with Val. George is suddenly held hostage by Frank. The cameraman, after years, still can’t accept Kirk’s life choices. Kenny’s good at this, this one-on-one interaction, stories with conflicts that seems to set protagonists against an antagonist, but really set them against themselves.

I liked the stories in Love Is Not Small Thing, character explorations that put complex people in simple yet difficult situations, then let us watch what they do, how they react. Meghan Kenny writes solid fiction. I was glad to spend some time with it today.