April 7, 2020: “Bull” by Kathy Anderson

Happy Tuesday, Story366!

Today I had the absolute treat of taking part in a SmokeLong Quarterly online party, using Zoom, where thirty-forty writers convened for nearly three hours of chats and readings. As I serve as the Interviews Editor for SLQ, I’ve probably corresponded with all of these folks at some point. I’ve also read their work and gotten to know them, or at least how they respond to five quick questions when asked about their work. It was nice to put faces to a lot of those people, but also to chat with them—in-between the readings we had break-out discussion sessions. I got to gab with some interesting folks, folks like Pingmei Lan, Jules Archer, James Claffey, Maria Alejandra Barrios, Siamak Vissoughi, and Amy Barnes. Got to chat a bit with people I knew already, too, like Christopher Allen, Helen Rye, Jennifer Wortman, and Moon City authors Kim Magowan and Michelle Ross. All in all, a great experience. I might just like this Zoom thing.

For today’s post, I read from Kathy Anderson‘s collection, Bull and Other Stories, out in 2016 as the winner of Autumn House Press‘s 2015 Autumn House Fiction Prize. Yet again, this was a new author to me, sending me into the book fresh.

I started with the lead and title story, “Bull,” about this teenaged kid named Josh. Josh wants to get a tattoo, but his parents won’t let him. A pretty basic conflict made all the more interesting by the fact the story, or at lest the first two-thirds of it, takes place during a family therapy session involving Josh and his parents. Josh’s rationalization for getting the tattoo? His dad, Heidi, has just gone through a full-on sex-reassignment operation, and Josh figures if Heidi can have his penis removed, he can get a tattoo.

The perspective, offered from a really tight third person via Josh, is pretty awful. At best, it’s teenage angst and rebellion, a kid telling his parents off, defying them, his dad/new mom’s personal life notwithstanding. At worst, it’s anti-transgender, Josh pulling out every insult and illogical insult he can to not only get his way, but to make his parents feel awful. He’s a real shit, basically, using Heidi’s situation to promote his personal agenda. By the way, the tattoo he wants is of a giant bull along his arm, the tail curling under to his armpit. Anderson is able to pull off the voice more than convincingly, making us dislike Josh, making us feel for Heidi, and make all readers without kids want to reinforce their birth control methods.

Mom, Sue Ann, tries her best to coach Josh out of his political incorrectness (btw, the therapist is distinctly missing from the gallery), but soon loses her patience. Of course, an entire story could be written about Sue Ann, how she’s dealing with having Heidi instead of Joe as her partner. That’s another story for another day: Sue Ann remains by her spouse, like a rock, forming a front against their mouthy offspring. Eventually, the session is over, end scene.

The rest of the story takes place at a tattoo parlor, Josh attempting to go through with his plan. He gets in the chair, describes his bull in detail—Josh has clear issues with masculinity—to the artist about to ink him forever. The artist, as it turns out, has never done a tattoo before: It’s her first day. She not filled with confidence, but Josh is lucky that she forgot to ask for ID and is deterimined to go through with it. What happens next is where I’ll cut this off, Josh, the little punk who insulted Heidi, who comes off as so incredibly unlikeable, facing the consequences of his very independent decision.

“Bull” is a short piece, not even ten pages long, but is filled with tension, personality, and even a little humor. It sets a nice table-setter for the rest of the book, for the stories I read  after. “Stop. Go.” is a dual-perspective story. The first narrative is about Gina and her partner, Morrison, who are taking their dog to a dog park. On the way, Gina insists the world sucks because everyone has cancer or will soon get it. Her apocalyptic attitude contradicts Morrison’s sunnier disposition, and it’s clear after a while he loves Gina and wants to start a family. Their story converges with that of the Huddlestons, an ancient couple in an enormous Cadillac, driving to a funeral (for one of Mr. Huddleston’s ex-lovers, we find out).

“The Last Time” is about a limo driver, Sam, who doubles as a hearse driver, a guy at the end of his career. His last job is to drive a man and his eight (or more?) kids to their mother’s funeral. Along the way, the widowed man bemoans his recently deceased wife, blames her for dying—during childbirth—blames her for leaving him with all these kids. He goes so far as to call her awful names, right in front of their children, on their way to her funeral, and this is where Sam draws the line.

I skipped ahead for a title next, “Dip Me in Honey and Throw Me to the Lesbians,” which is about Jane, a middle-aged woman waiting for a table at a museum restaurant after a gallery opening. She and her lesbian friends wait impatiently as their reservation time comes and goes. Jane passes the time pontificating on her sexuality and staring at a bearded baby at the table just a few feet away, the baby’s mother not taking to her stares.

Finally, I read “So Many Women, So Little Time,” about Trina and Dee, middle-aged lesbians who have very different ideas of what their relationship is, what relationships are in general, as well as what’s meant by monogamy and trust.

Kathy Anderson’s stories in Bull are tiny burts of human angst, filled with characters trying to have their perspectives heard, understood, and agreed with, frustrated that they’re often not. Most of the people I met are deeply flawed, charcters stuck in stubborn realities, conflicts that don’t always bring out their best selves. That made my time with Anderson’s book enjoyable. Lost souls make bad choices, but it’s mostly bad people being bad, owning it every second.