A good Saturday to you, Story366!
Later today, we’re having a suprise graduation party for our oldest son, who just finished eighth grade and is heading to high school in the fall—whatever high school is going to be by then. The party isn’t going to quite be the fest that we may have had in a normal year, but we’re still going as all-out as we can. We have decorations, we have special-made cupcakes, we have a special dinner planned, and we have a Zoom scheduled for our entire immediate family, twenty-something aunts, uncles, and cousins. We also picked up an electric guitar and amp for him, something he’s wanted for a while, though he’s gotten pretty good on his acoustic, which he’s been teaching himself to play. I’ve never played guitar, and before I carried this new one into its hiding place in the back room, I don’t think I’d ever held an electric guitar before. It’s really as sleek and beautiful and sexy as I imagined a guitar would be in my hands. Makes me kinda wish I was graduating eighth grade and my family was plotting some surprise behind my back.
We’re trying, as of now, to make this a surprise, but we have a few more hours to pull this all off somehow—and yes, I’m completely conident there’s no way he’s going to read this blog post, before six tonight, not in a million years. We’ll see how it goes. The part we’re most looking forward to is seeing our son realize he’s gotten this guitar. A close second is seeing my family try to work their way through Zoom, from controlling the mute function to seeing how many of them carry their computers into the bathroom without realizing it.
For today’s post, I read from Dwight Yates‘ 2006 collection, Bring Everybody, out from the University of Massachusetts Press as the winner of its inaugural—yep, the first one—Juniper Prize in Fiction. This is an older book, and Yates has an even older collection, but I don’t think I’ve ready any of his work before. First times are great, so here we go.
“The Black Mercedes” is the opener and is about this guy and his wife who are housesitting for an acquaintance, spending the summer living in someone else’s house. One day a man knocks on the door, asks for the owner, and when he finds out he’s not there, asks to come inside. The protagonist lets him in, only to have him die minutes later. The housesitters have to deal with this dead guy, make the arrangements, his family mostly unreachable. Eventually, the dead man’s grandaughter, Cheetah (not a typo), comes to claim him, which causes a stir, for a few reasons, in a totally different way.
“A Certain Samaritan” is about a couple, again, who drive by a broken-down car up in the mountains and decide to stop and help. They take the car’s owner, with them into town so she can get a towtruck, only to find that she’s born-again, trying to convince them, on their drive to rethink their lives.
I really enjoyed “Gophers,” an all-out positive, almost conflict-free story about a woman attending an animal rights conference, where she runs into a professor who agrees to come to her house and help her with her gopher problem. Levity and humanity ensues as the two solve their problems, then get busy.
Those are the first three stories in the book. From there, I jumped to the end, to the title story, “Bring Everybody.” This one’s about Leonard, an older fella whose two best friends pass away within a few weeks of each other. This sends Leonard on an existential journey of self-consideration, which, after several leaps, leads him to believing his best course of action is moving his wife to a new town, to a nice place to settle down, and then kill himself.
Leonard’s logic here is that he wants Vera, his wife, to be in the place she wants to end up when he goes, that he’ll handle all of the moving out and moving in, all the maintenance and such, so she won’t have to. As for the suicide, Leonard’s convinced that his number will soon be up, no matter what else he does, and he might as well get Vera some insurance money, if he can manage to make his death look like an accident.
Leonard takes the plan so far as to talk Vera into moving, asking her where she wants to go, without, of course, letting on about the other part of his plan. Vera’s still having none of it, however, and when Leonard says he’s looking for fulfillment in this move, Vera suggests he look into some charity work, to put some miles on his soul instead of on a moving van.
This leads Leonard to “The Listening Post,” a service at the local university where students can go to get advice on their problems, sort of a mom-and-pop mental health service (which, today, would almost certainly not exist, for liability’s sake). There, Leonard works with Madge, an old pro, and is replacing her former partner, who suddenly died.
Soon, Leonard finds out about the bevy of problems that young people have, young people who want advice from grandparent-types instead of parent-types, which is why The Listening Post uses senior citizens (my guess it’s the same reason why kids’ cartoons don’t every have any parents in them, but grandparents instead). Leonard knows he doesn’t know much about young people, but if it’s one thing old white guys are good at, it’s giving advice, so Leonard should be able to function.
Leonard almost instantly connects with a young woman named Caroline, who’s a mess. She has what we would now recognize as a diagnosable issue, but back then—John Lennon the The Carpenters are all over the radio—is something you just had to work through. Caroline doesn’t like her roommate, and vice versa, and nobody in her dorm likes her, either. She’s also putting on weight and her face is breaking out horribly. Leonard’s suggestion? Surprise the whole group with a pizza when they’re all hanging out—young people sure do love pizza!—and they’re likely to come around. Caroline is a bit confused, but agrees, and Madge pats Leonard on his back.
It seems as though Leonard’s plan works, as Caroline comes back—she stops by a lot—and says the group was totally surprised by the pizza, even invited her to go boating with them that weekend. Leonard is pleased for Caroline, but is especially pleased with his good deed. He sees himself as some super-advisor to the young. He’s forgets all about his suicide plan and envisions himself as a hero, someone every lauds for his skills, for being a great guy. Hee goes from a self-pitying dilemma to a God complex in just a matter of a week or so. What an arc!
Since this is a short story, Leonard is brought down to earth, and hard. I won’t go into detail as to what happens, but overall, Yates takes Leonard’s existential crises full circle, ending his story in a surprising and satisfying way, making this a fine title story, a fine way to end his collection.
My first foray into Dwight Yates’ work in Bring Everybody was a good reading experience. Yates is good at finding predicaments for characters already kind of in predicaments, facing someone’s crisis while already facing their own. It’s a solid formula for solid fiction, which Yates delivers, story after story.