May 21, 2020: “White Birds” by Dinty W. Moore

Hey there, Story366!

I’ve been leading up to this all week, but my boys finished school today and are off for the summer. Each of them is taking an online summer school class—the new second-grader is doing something with National Parks and the new high school freshman is taking algebra—but my job as homeschooler is over for now. I think we’re all glad. The highlight of the day was driving through the elementary school parking lot, where that new second-grader entered as a first-grader, waved at all his teachers, and then exited two minutes later a second-grader. As simple a gesture as this was, it made him feel really good, special,  and was a nice ending for this wacky-ass school year.

One aspect of homeschooling the older boy that the Karen and I really enjoyed was his English class—go figure—the simplicity of the teacher’s plan: Read Tom Sawyer. They had to read a chapter a day, then take a short quiz online, and that was it for the term. We decided we would do this with him, orally—I’d never read Tom Sawyer before—so each weeknight, we read a chapter out loud. Of course, we got behind, so we had to read the last six chapters last night, breaking after each for its corresponding quiz. Within two hours, we finished, the last assignment he’d turn in before high school, earning him an A for the class.

It was a lovely experience, reading this beautiful (and sometimes racist) book out loud, experiencing it with our son, taking turns reading, helping him with the quizes, seeing him complete the whole thing. We are looking for another book to start, though we might take a week off first. It’s summer after all, and we could all use a break.

Today I read from another book I’ve had for a long time, Toothpick Men, Dinty W. Moore‘s 1998 collection from Mammoth Books. I got this book back in 2003, when Moore visited Bowling Green—I know this because he signed and dated it—and I know I read at least some of these stories back then, including the semi-title piece, “My Father Was the Toothpick Man.” As I was sorting out my books earlier this year, I almost didn’t put it on the story collection shelf, assuming, all these years later, it was probably nonfiction—that’s what Moore’s so very known for now, isn’t he, Brevity and all those memoirs and books on writing CNF? But I did spot the “Short Stories by” part of the cover and put it aside, wanting to revisit it, which I did today, just now.

“White Birds” is the opener and my favorite story, so I’ll focus on that. This one’s about this guy, Daniel, who comes home to find his best friend, Tommy, in his kitchen, raiding his fridge for a beer. This isn’t uncommon, as the two live half a mile apart, have been friends for decades, and Tommy doesn’t have much to do. Tommy’s particularly rattled on this day, and when Daniel asks why, he eventually stutters out that he was down at the lake, watching these three twelve-year-old girls playing in the water—both me and Daniel found this creepy, the story headed in the wrong direction. That’s when Tommy surprised us both and said the girls changed into egrets and flew away. And he’s serious: Tommy believes this happened.

Immediately I wondered if this was magical realism. It hardly feels like it, as Tommy’s as unreliable-sounding as they come. Along with the second-hand nature of the telling, none of the other characteristics of magical realism are present here. So, this just seems like some drunken story, a tall tale.

But, as I type this up, it’s striking me that Tommy was watching some twelve-year-old girls and then they disappeared down by the lake. It’s dawning on me, now, that the creepy vibe I’d gotten from this is true and the yarn about therianthropy that Tommy is selling is probably a cover sory. Awful things probably have happened, I should have been thinking. I mean, right?

Still, Daniel’s wife has just left him at this point, after a miscarriage, a disagreement about trying again, and Tommy’s not only his best friend, but his only friend. Since Daniel has more free time on his hands as well—and he wants to believe him—he spends a lot of time down by the lake, watching egrets with Tommy. I guess they’re waiting for one of them to turn back into a twelve-year-old girl. Or maybe something else fantastic to happen. Or maybe Tommy’s realized he shouldn’t have told Daniel any of this and he’s going to murder him, too.

Nothing else fanastic does happen, not like Tommy described in Daniel’s kitchen. Instead, the two talk a lot, mostly about Daniel’s wife. Tommy thinks Daniel should call her, says they broke up over something stupid. Just as Daniel’s explaining why he can’t do this, Tommy does the unthinkable: He launches himself onto a nearby egret and grasps it in his arms. Without missing a beat, he tells Daniel to open the trunk of his car so he can stash the egret inside, so he can have the egret. It’s not really clear if Tommy wants to eat the egret, wants to keep it as a pet, or is hoping it’ll turn back into a little girl for him to … whatever. But for sure, Tommy is screaming at Daniel to hurry up and open the car, this struggling, pecking giant bird in his arms, desperately trying to get away from this bad, bad man.

Daniel, who’s been level-headed if nothing else, doesn’t play along. I won’t go any further than this into the story, but will note that the egret takes on more symbolism than you’d think, and in the end, Daniel doesn’t find Tommy as crazy as he probably should. The story is sad, funny, and beautiful, a fine jumping-off point for a collection.

I read other stories in the book as well, some that came back to me from years before, some that felt new. “Racism in America: The Official Report” is about a guy named Adolph—I shit you not—who lives in some snowy town that’s been hit by a blizzard, covering everything in feet of snow. Adolph is a self-professed racist who enjoys watching his foreign neighbor—who’s described as having skin the color of a paper bag—struggle to get his car out of its place. The story intensifies when this neighbor sees Adolph in the window and knocks on his door for help.

“One Day in Therapy” is a dialogue-heavy tale about a guy named Eddie in a session with a smack-talking therapist. Eddie is having trouble at home, unable to have sex with his wife, for various reasons, a situation his therapist is flippantly trying to help him conquer.

That almost-title story, “My Father Was the Toothpick Man” is a short, about a kid with a drunk, abusive father, how he sees him, how he deals with him (or doesn’t).

Today wasn’t my first visit to Toothpick Men, Dinty W. Moore’s early story collection, but this second run made my visit more complete. These are good stories, compelling and urgent, people trying to cope with their shit, their shit not always wanting to be coped. It’s a good formula, one that Moore employs quite well.

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