May 19, 2020: “We Could’ve Been Happy Here” by Keith Lesmeister

Hey, Story366!

With grades turned in yesterday, even with the intersession class I already have going, it’s officially summer! Yay! I think that will take greater effect when my boys are done with their school after this Thursday, when we’re all kind of “free” to do what we want (aside from that intersession course …). Maybe I’ll feel a bit more relieved then, as I’m trying to get my boys, especially the older one, in better shape scholastically as things wind down. Luckily, our school district has decided on a forgiving policy, in that the students will end on their grades from the midterm (end of third quarter), but can work to improve. So, my son has only been able to raise his grades, not lower them. This led to some strategic planning, as the classes we were satisfied with got ignored, more or less, while we focused on the areas we could make a difference. It’s an interesting approach, but it’s kept him busy, kept him hacking away at his weaker areas, which is always a good thing. Many of the outlying communities—those without reliable Internet or Chromebook services—were forced to throw in the towel, just end the school year back in March. I’m glad my son has kept busy, has continued to learn, and has better prepared himself for high school in the fall.

But I’ll also be glad when my job as a homeschooler will be done in a couple of days. At least for now.

Today I read from Keith Lesmeister‘s 2017 collection, We Could’ve Been Happy Here, out from MG Press. I’ve read Lesmeister’s stories before, over the years, as he’s been in quite a few lit mags, has had a solid presence. I’ve always liked what I’ve read, so I was glad to get ahold of this book, to see what his collection is like, to read a bunch at once.

“Nothing Prettier Than This” is the opener and is about a guy, Vincent, who’s farm-sitting for his friend, Lyle. Lyle’s got some dairy cows, and all Vincent has to do is keep an eye on them and milk them. He’s brought along Katharine, a woman he’s been seeing, and both of them are at the farm, figuring out their respective marriages, marriages to other people. One day, the cows get loose and wander off, sending Vincent and Katherine out to find them, giving them time to talk about things, something they’re not all that good at.

“A Basketball Story” is about these twin boys who live in Iowa and want to be basketball players, so they play in their backyard every day, nonstop, with their older brother, who’s a D-I prospect. The story kind of focuses on that relationship, but then takes a sharp turn when a new character is introduced, which somehow causes the twins to split   into two separate entities, the conflict suddenly concerning their growing apart.

I then skipped ahead to the final and title story, “We Could’ve Been Happy Here,” which brings us back to Vincent. At the story outset, he again finds himself farm-sitting for his pal, Lyle. Since we last saw Vincent—or maybe since last saw Vincent—he’s somehow lost Katharine, hasn’t seen his kids in over a year, and has become super-hooked on heroin. The opening of the story shows Vincent getting clean, isolating himself at Lyle’s farm, throwing up, drinking Gatorade, and finally, finding peace. Not sure if I missed more of Vincent in the middle of the book, so I might just have to go back nd find out. But I was happy to pick back up with this memorable character.

In any case, Vincent, clean and clear-headed, is ready to watch the cows, do some milking, and think about the next phase of his life. That’s when someone knocks on the door. It’s a guy named Whitetail—he’s got a long, white ponytail—there to tell him (or Lyle, really) that a herd of his cows have escaped and are headed down the road. Vincent doesn’t know anything about any other cows—just the two milking cows from the first story—but Whitetail seems like he’s sincere, that he doesn’t want to see Lyle lose a whole herd because this junkie dumbass doesn’t even know what he’s watching. Whitetail can’t help gather the herd, but he knows a guy, Earnest, who can.

Vincent trails Whitetail to Earnest’s, a place down the road where a lot of people are gathered. Earnest seems eager to get out of the house, more to get out of the house than to help Vincent, and Whitetail leaves them to their task. Earnest and Vincent head out to herd the cows, and Earnest’s nine-year-old daughter, Anya, tags along. Turns out it’s Anya’s ninth birthday and the gathering is her party, one that includes Earnest’s ex, her new husband, and their new kids. This is why Earnest is so eager rustle up cattle in the dark, to escape the absurdity of this family reunion.

From there, the story features a lot of hollaring and swatting at cows, trying to get them home, to do something they don’t seem necessarily cooperative about. Earnest, a real pro, is doing most of the work, while Vincent and Anya just kind of hang around, do what he says. But that’s mostly just hanging around. It’s in this time that the story really hit its stride, as it features Vincent dealing with Anya—who reminds him a whole lot of his own nine-year-old daughter, the one he hasn’t seen in over a year. It’s a real existential moment for Vincent, full of symbolism and memory and regret, maybe the first time he’s hd to think about his life in a while, definitely since he’s been clean. The story just kind of ends there, as does the book, though Vincent looks ahead, upward, the rest of his life in front of him, for better or for worse.

We Could’ve Been Happy Here is a solid dose of Keith Lesmeister, his Iowa-based stories that explore the real desires and pains and passions of the human heart. I really like Vincent, his inner struggles and his outer failures, a guy who’s more than reminiscent of Denis Johnson’s Fuckhead, only with kids, maybe some more miles on his odometer. I like Lesmeister’s prose and his style, too, his easy realism, his deep cuts into his characters, the natural, yet high-stakes nature of his events. This is a good book. Glad to have it on my shelf.

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One thought on “May 19, 2020: “We Could’ve Been Happy Here” by Keith Lesmeister

  1. Pingback: May 20, 2020: “How to Love a Jamaican” by Alexia Arthurs – Story366

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