April 18, 2020: “Cool City” by Chuck Augello

Happy Saturday, Story366!

Today I got super-special permission to go into my office to handle some Moon City Press business, a day when no one else is scheduled to be in the building. One of our administrative assistants comes in on Wednesday, the other on Friday, so I’m in now—for the first time in three weeks—preparing several things to be mailed. Campus mail gets picked up once a week, from one location, and is sorted and delivered after it sits for forty-eight hours in some safe room. I have the weekend to do what I need to do, to get all my business in the office, on the mailroom counter, for them to deal with. What’s not on that counter on Monday morning waits another week to go out. So, gotta be productive when I’m here—though it’s tempting, the first time away from the kids in three weeks, to just do my thing, veg out, take a nap, watch something. Or heck, write. Let’s see how many boxes I can pack and how many labels I can make out. And if I can get this post done.

Today I read from Chuck Augello‘s collection, The Inexplicable Grey Space We Call Love, fresh off the presses on April 1 from Duck Lake Books. I’d not read Augello’s work before today, so I had no idea what to expect. I’ll sum up my feelings near the end, I’m sure, but here’s a spoiler: I loved the stories in this book.

The opening story, “Pizza Monks,” is about a pizzeria manager (note, this blogger’s job through high school) who faces an unusual order just before closing: Two Buddhist monks come in and want twenty large cheese pizzas. There’s a gathering, it seems, of people protesting this and that, and at dawn, one of the monks (not either of the ones ordering the pizza) is going to set himself on fire to bring attention the the issue’s at hand. This monk has requested this specific pizza for his last meal, and as it turns out, the narrator/protagonist/pizzeria guy knows this monk, used to play pick-up basketball with him. There’s stuff going on for our hero that parallels all this—his girlfriend is considering an abortion—and Augello brings it all together quite nicely.

Next I read “The Prerogatives of Magic,” featuring this guy whose young daughter says she has made her mother disappear. It seems like a kid’s game, a goof, but when the mom turns up gone, and the protagonist remembers how other objects have strangely been disappearing, it sets forth a mystery as to whether the little girl really has this power or the Mom has just up and left (which had been on the table before all this started).

“Keeper” is about a guy who’s about to have really great sex with a woman with a dragon tattoo—she’s naked in his apartment and they’re ready to go—when he gets a call from his little sister because she found a baby goat in the bathroom at McDonald’s (where she works) and she wants to bring it home (brother and sister live together). The dragon tattoo lady gives our hero twenty minutes to go and deal with this, otherwise she’s out. Thus starts a race to deal with the kid before the dragon flies away for good.

Today’s feature story, “Cool City,” features Dash, a guy (all these stories are about guys with weird situations, if you haven’t noticed) who gets an extremely unusual offer as he’s standing outside his apartment building: Annabelle, a neighbor from two floors down, says she’d like to make life plans, for them to get married and start a life together. She’s part of a group that calls themselves Fast Love, whose credo says that the longer a couple prolongs a courtship, the longer they have to find each other’s faults and end their relationship. The group believes the best way to circumvent all this is to meet someone and get married right away, to face all of the ups and downs while already married. Dash has forty-eight hours to make a decision, or otherwise, Annabelle will move on to another candidate. Pretty awesome concept for a story, and the best part is Augello wholly delivers on the premise.

Anyway, there’s a lot of ways Dash can look at all this. He could just say no, tell Annabelle she’s a crazy bride-type, the type with a wedding dress ready to go on the hook on the back of her bedroom door. Or, he could take advantage of the situation and try to sleep with her, make up some story about wanting to investigate that area in the forty-eight hours. Or he could accept. Most normal people would go with the former, while a lot of scuzzy dudes I know would try door number two. Who would really go for the latter, saying yes and marrying this stranger just because she went to a seminar? Dash does find her shins to be sexy, he notes several times, Annabelle prone to sitting on the stairs as he climbs upward.

We find out that Annabelle might be Dash’s best shot at romance, mostly due to his crippling obsessive compulsive disorder. When Annabelle tags Dash for this honor, he was actually waiting for his linguini to finish, precisely twenty-seven pieces of linguini cooked for exactly nine minutes and twenty-four seconds, his dinner, every night, for as long as he can remember. He also has issues with stop signs—he has to count them when he’s in a car, passing, and has to tap each three times if he’s on a walk. This has been going on most of his life, meaning no girl has ever wanted anything to do with him (save one disastrous date in junior high). So, Dash doesn’t have a lot of prospects. He’s likely a virgin.

Augello fills the forty-eight hours with a lot of cool scenes and a lot of details. Annabelle has a quiz for them to fill out, on which Dash scores highly. She drags Dash to a Fast Love meeting, where the founder, Dr. Ashokan, is giving a speech—Annabelle claims the group’s a lot like the scientologists, minus Tom Cruise, and considers this a good thing. Augello includes a venn diagram that Annabelle drew, consisting of herself, Dash, and the inexplicable grey space we call love (the book’s title!), the intersecting section representing their shot at happiness. Dash also works and has an interesting relationship with a subordinate, as well as advice phone calls with his brother, a Marine stationed in Kuwait. This idea is completely expended and is clever when it needs to be, practical at other times, and overall, a fascinating clock to see wind down.

Did I mention that Dash is Annabelle’s twelfth shot at this? Also, that number eleven is only about a day and a half ahead of Dash, a guy Dash meets as he’s walking, with Annabelle, into her apartment? Not only is Dash facing a deadline, but he’s got active competition, competition who’s had the jump on him for Annabelle’s kooky plans.

To note, Annabelle can pull out as well—the decision’s not totally up to Dash. When the two spend QT together and Dash starts up with his stop sign routine, her interest wanes. She does, however, give it her best shot to cure Dash of his OCD nature instead of accept it. That’s quite the scene is all I’ll say

I won’t go any further into the plot or reveal how this ends, but this is one of the most original concepts I’ve read this year, the story, perhaps, the one I most wish I’d written myself. Not sure how else I can pour lauds on this story.

I never know what I’m getting into when I open up a collection by a new-to-me author. Reading The inexplicable Grey Space We Call Love today gave me a truly fantastic reading experience. I am going to read more of Chuck Augello’s work and I’m definitely going to share “Cool City” with my students, show them how a big concept can be executed so perfectly. Get your hands on this book, as Augello can really write.

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