May 8, 2020: “Tender Cuts” by Jayne Martin

Happy Friday to you, Story366!

Today I’d like to share some happy news: We have a groundhog! We’ve seen him before, a few times, and I know he lives in our back yard, possibly under a bush, likely under our shed. He’s inched closer and closer to the property, but just now, I walked toward our back door and saw this out on the deck:

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The funny thing is, right after I took this shot, we spotted a second groundhog back by the shed. My thought was, “Oh! We have a couple!” but the Karen immediately said, “Uh-oh: Turf war!” Sure enough, when the porch groundhog sensed the shed groundhog, it turned and ran after it, chasing it into the bushes. A few minutes later, one was chasing the other—I’d lost track of which was which—along the back fence, up along the side fence, and then under the deckwhich I was standing on at the time. The chaser groundhog stopped just a few feet from me, as if to let me know it was mkaing sure that other groundhog stayed under the deck. Then the chaser groundhog waddled off and wiggled its way under the shed. There have been no sightings since.

What we want to know is, where’s the opossum, who also used to live under the shed, during all of this? Our hope is that they live together, in harmony, like some real-life island from Animal Crossing or something, maybe even the start of our own Eden.

Today I had the treat of reading Jayne Martin‘s new flash/vignette collection, Tender Cuts, out late last year from Vine Leaves Press. I’ve seen Martin’s work here and there, mostly in online flash journals, but it’s nice to have this whole collection in hand, to be able to read the whole book—and that’s just what I did today, read the entire thing, forty-something pieces, all a page long or less, all culminating in an impressive offering.

The title story, “Tender Cuts,” is the first story in the book. It’s about a young girl, Julie-Sue, whose mom enters her in the Little Miss Soybean Pageant at the local fair. Just a cowpie’s throw from where the hogs and other livestock are ribboned, Julie Sue competes against the other little girls in the county whose moms think this is a good idea. Julie-Sue hates this pageant, but her mom insists she compete, the $150 prize too needed for them to skip.

Martin has a lot of fun, cleverly running the beauty pageant right alongside the livestock show, intertwining the descriptions as both the animals and the girls are run out to be judged (even the title offers some a yucky double entendre). That’s pretty serious commentary on just how demeaning these pageants are, in case you didn’t yet know, a nice way to start off the collection.

I won’t go any further into the story—remember, these are all a page long or less—but will offer a bonus: Another story, this one entitled “Prime Cuts,” can be found later in the book. This story picks up about ten years after the first, as Julie-Sue has just won the Mis Teen Soybean Pageant and is in the process of receiving her crown when this second piece opens. We see just how the seedy world of county-fair pageants has treaty Julie-Sue, the years not much kinder to her than they were to those prize pigs. I definitely wanted to see a third or even fourth story, the Senior Miss Soybean, Julie-Sue on a respirator, but no dice. Still, it was nice to revisit this character. More stories should do this, by the way, write sequels, telling us where everyone is ten years later, kind of like those notes at the end of Animal House.

Other highlights: “Elephant Roars,” “The New Kid,” “BFFs,” “I Married a 1985 Buick LeSabre,” “Night Shift at the Final Stop Café,” “Working Girl,” “A Lobster Walks Into a Laundromat,” “Pinky Swear,” and “Final Cut,” but I think I’m just looking at the table of contents now and cherry-picking memorable titles. Really, this whole book works for me as a singular experience, best consumed en masse, one piece after another, until you get to the end of the bowl and nothing’s left. All the stories stand well on their own; all bring something to the holistic experience.

Thematically, Martin explores the small injustices that make us all human, like Julie-Sue’s mom making her do a can-can for her talent portion of the beauty contest, even though Julie Sue hates it that her underwear shows when she kicks her legs up—this is why Mom’s chosen this dance, and sadly, we wonder, if maybe that’s why she does so well. Jayne Martin’s able to find those little conflicts for all her characters, those moments that seem like immediate inconveniences, but are the small tears that lead to lasting, indelible scars. Tender Cuts is full of scars, and the people who bear then, Martin a master of accentuating the wound, but also at demonstrating the blade.

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