June 1, 2020: “Everyone Remain Calm” by Megan Stielstra

Another Monday, Story366!

Yesterday, I’d just barely heard the news when I wrote my post, and really didn’t have time to absorb it, form a coherent opinion, and still get everything up before midnight. But in any case, in the time since, I’ve watched the news, read the news, and believe that my job, right now, as a white man, is to be supportive and to listen. It’s not time for me to preach, express myself, or pretend I know the right thing to say. In short, I do hope that in the end, incidents like what we’re experiencing now—the killing of George Floyd, the ensuing riots, and all the debate that has stemmed from it—serve a greater purpose in the end.

That purpose? Unarmed, nonresistant black people stop getting murdered by police. Black Lives Matter.

For today’s post, I read from Megan Stielstra‘s collection, Everyone Remain Calm, out in 2011 from ECW Press. If you notice the accompanying picture—me holding the book in my hand—the book is somewhat larger than it usually is. If you can read the small print at the bottom, you’ll see that it’s so big because this is a version reformatted for the sight-deprived, people who can read books, but only if the font is ginormous. I ordered this book online a long time ago, received this version in the mail, and was a bit flummoxed, not knowing what I was holding. I soon I figured it out, but put the book aside and never got to it, not in 2016; fool! I’d read Stielstra’s stories in journals and always liked her work. To not dive in and read it right away because it’s … easier to read? How ridiculous of me. In any case, today I spied her book on my shelf—it sticks out, after all ..—and figured it was damn well time. So let’s do it.

I read a lot of stories in this book, more than I usually do, because the stories are great, relatively short, and are easy to just gobble up, intense pieces with clear conflicts, characters, and huge, huge balls.

“Shot to the Lungs and No Breath Left,” the opener, sees fifteen-year-old Shannon’s father loading his gun after Shannon’s boyfriend, Wade (who’s much older) gives Shannon a black eye. He’s not just pissed or being dramatic—there’s every reason to believe her dad is going to kill Wade and mount him on their Alaskan wall like all the other trophies he’s bagged and mounted—and none of those animals ever slapped Shannon around!

“Times Are Tough All Over” is a laundry list of characters and what they do to save a dime, to cut a corner, to make ends meetduring rough times. It’s kind of like Susan Minot’s “Lust,” but with desperate money-saving stories instead of men the protagonist has slept with.

“Do You Want to Have Sex With Alan and Chloe?” is about a woman who has been propositioned, along with her husband, to swing with the titular characters at a bar. Our hero runs down what she thinks that means, along with her first experience with swinging, before we find out her answer.

“I Am the Keymaster” is not about Ghostbusters, but is still a good story about a woman who actually makes keys. She faces an unplanned pregnancy amidst a budget that doesn’t allow any leeway and a partner who’s just too big of a dumbass to be involved with when it comes to such things.

“Everyone Remain Calm,” the title and last story, is about an unnamed woman who survived a tornado at her grade school as a child, ripping everything apart, the kids saved by the fact they learned the drills, how to sit against the wall in the hallway with their fingers fastened behind their heads—and remain calm. Sadly, though, when the storm is gone, her father comes to the school, not to pick her up, but to tell her that her mother did not survive, that she was sucked out of their house by the same tornado, never to be seen again.

The story then flashes forward to the adult version of our hero, a woman whose experience and tragedy have given her amenophobia, the fear of wind. She’s crippled by this fear, unable to function during any kind of windstorm, even a breeze coming in from the window. 

The rest of the story is about how she deals with her fear, a fear she has to confront more often than, say, a deipnophobiac faces their fear: dinner conversation. Wind can’t be avoided, and sometimes, gets downright nasty (not that dinner conversation can’t, to be clear). She seeks therapy, takes drugs, and even goes to group therapy with people who have similarly irrational fears. There’s the deipnophobiac, plus others, people with the fear of moisture, stars, bears, erections, etc. What sucks is, as dysfunctional as all of those others sound, everything laughs at our hero’s phobia, thinks she’s making it up. Not a very supportive support group.

Enter Earl, her boyfriend, who is the only man with whom she’s ever been on a second date, the only one who doesn’t think she’s a freak, the only one who wants to be with her. During bad times—you know, like, when it’s windy—Earl comforts her, tells her to Breathe over and over again; not lost is the irony that breathing, in and of itself, produces wind.

Sadly, even Earl can’t be what she needs him to be. During an intense episode, he tells our hero the one thing she’s been told her whole life, the one thing she doesn’t want to hear: “This is all in your head.”

This betrayal leads us to the ending of Stielstra’s story, which I won’t reveal here. Like most of Stielstra’s stories, this piece is intense, frenetic, and powerful, yet relatably true. It’s a great story, its ending as emotionally charged and absurd as the incitement that got it rolling … well, almost.

Megan Stielstra’s Everyone Remain Calm is one of the more enjoyable collections I’ve come across this year, making me feel all the more stupid for avoiding it this long. Stielstra has a seemingly endless supply of predicaments, dilemmas, and situations for her characters to endure, people, like her readers, who are figuring it all out as they go along. That brings an endearing innocence to not-so-innocent proceedings, making the conflicts sting just a bit more, the downs a lot further down, the journeys all the more epic.