April 6, 2020: “Like a Champion” by Vincent Chu

Monday, Monday, Monday, Story366!

Today, we had a bit of a scare. We had to take our beloved Salami to the vet. He was being feisty, running around, trying to get some attention—we’d been outside all day—and ran up my bookshelves. He started to knock over pictures and vases and shit, so I tried to grab him and get him down, but he leapt to the couch instead, about four feet straight down. He didn’t quite stick the landing, hitting the cushion all wonky-like. Even though he’d hit a cushion, I knew right away he wasn’t right as he ran off. I found him hiding under a table he never hides under and he had some blood on his muzzle and was looking kind of listless. I called the Karen—because of course I did—and she headed straight home. Salami kind of looked okay by the time she got here, but he was smacking his lips, something clearly not 100 percent about his right cheek. We called the vet, who said he was either bruised or had a broken jaw; since he’d let me examine him, even thrusting his chin out for me to pet, I didn’t think his jaw was broken. Still, we didn’t want to take any chances—I couldn’t imagine going through this current situation without him—we got in for the last vet appointment of the day.

Note: I hadn’t been out in public, engaging with people, for three weeks. I’d picked up groceries a few times, curbside, and we drove through to pick up some prescriptions … and some Arby’s one time. Karen made me a mask out of one of my bandannas, we stuffed Salami into the carrier, and I headed for a public encounter.

Luckily, I was the last appointment of the day and there was only one other animal/human pair still at the office. This big puppy had just had stomach surgery after eating—get this—a box of dryer sheets. Oh boy. Doggie was fine, went home—$781 later—and we were up. Three minutes after the vet went back to Salami, she came out and said Salami did not have a broken jaw. If he had, it would have been incredibly obvious and he would not have let us pet him, on his jaw or anywhere. The vet told us to keep an eye on him, make sure he eats, and that was that ($46 later).

At the vet’s office, I started reading from Vincent Chu‘s collection, Like a Champion, out in  2018 from 7.13 Books. I’d not read Chu’s work before this, though his stories have been widely published, so I was having another first.

Even in the vet’s office, an orange bandanna rubber-banded around my face, I loved the first story in the collection, “Fred From Finance.” In this story, Fred gets called in to HR on his birthday. Fred doesn’t have a lot of friends, so he dreams that the call is a set-up for a surprise birthday celebration, complete with a cake and singing. Fred is instead fired for lackluster performance. Some fellow employees promise to meet him out for a drink at a local bar, and, well, things get worse for Fred before they get better.

“Boom Town” is about Carlotta, who’s taking a kickboxing self-defense class after she was groped by a guy in public. The story is told in present tense, in real time, Carlotta getting screamed at by her drill-instructoresque instructor. Carlotta gets more and more agitated as she works out, the combo of memories of the incident and the instructor’s screaming pushing her over the edge.

“Ambrosia” is set at suburban Sunday barbecue, several thirty-something couples getting together, trying to one-up each other with both elaborate dishes and stories about getting old. Someone brought something that doesn’t settle well, causing most everyone to run to the bathroom, some not making it, Bridesmaids-style.

This led me to the title story, “Like a Champion,” the title and pentultimate story in the collection. In this story, we meet Georgie, the proprietor of a vintage toy and game shop that’s about to close down for good. Georgie, who’s on the high end of middle age, has worked in the store since he was sixteen, when it belonged to his Uncle Jen, who eventually died and left the store to him. At the start of the story, Georgie is making a last-week bucket list for the store, Like a Champion, everything he wants to do before the week ends.

Chu gives Georgie a lot to do, which includes settling debts, selling off as much merchandise as he can, and asking out the FedEx lady before it’s too late. He accomplishes all of this by Monday afternoon, seemingly leaving him with an easy last week. That is until he attends a friendly lunch with other neighborhood small business owners that unveils a rash of robberies. Everyone except Like a Champion has been hit, but Georgie knows he only has a couple of days left and doesn’t worry about it.

That is (again) until Georgie comes in on Wednesday morning to find his place ransacked and several items stolen, namely a large, valuable Beanie Baby collection. Georgie can’t believe he’s been robbed two days before his business closes, but more so, gets a thought in his head he can’t shake: Hadn’t he just given Felicia, the beautiful FedEx driver, a Beanie Baby the other day, when making their date? Hadn’t he just explained to her how much they were worth and how many he had? And doesn’t she visit all the robbery victims regularly, giving he ample opportunity to case? Suddenly, the woman of his dreams seems like a likely suspect.

Sadly, on his date—Georgie takes Felicia to Applebee’s for all-you-can-eat chicken wings—Georgie can’t help himself: He grills Felicia about her whereabouts the night before, nearly accuses her of stealing his Beanie Babies, and blows his one change. The date had been going so well!

Eventually, the mystery of the stolen Beanie Babies and the local cat burglar gets solved and Georgie’s week ends, along with Like a Champion. There’s plenty of twists and red herrings along the way, and heck, it might even be Felicia responsible for this after all. It’s a fun ride, but we also get to know this sad little man at a low point in his life, the world changing out from under him as he sees his uncle’s legacy disappear. Yet, the story is still uplifting and fun—it’s about a Beanie Baby heist, after all—and I loved every second I spent reading it.

Vincent Chu’s debut, Like a Champion, gave me a jolt during a tense time, then continued to deliver after all was well. This collection entertained the heck out of me, Chu’s approach to story, sentences, and plots very straightforward, but only the surface. Underneath lies a cast of tortured souls, working through Chu’s scripts, hoping to wake up to a better day. I can’t wait to read the rest of this book—I highly recommend you get to know this writer, too.