June 4, 2020: “Dying Light” by Donald Hays

Hello hello, Story366!

Yesterday, I encapsulated my thoughts on the George Floyd situation in a mini-essay at the start of my post, so today, I won’t go much further into this issue. I acknowledge, though, that the protests continue, the violence continues, curfews are still in effect, and the country is still getting less-than-zero leadership from its main elected official. The four ex-cops who did this to Floyd have all been charged with murder. Black Lives Matter.

Today I’ll talk more about our refrigerator, which took another crap, as someone left the freezer door open overnight. This makes the engine work overtime to keep the freezer cool, fucking the the fridge side up in the process. A friend of mine fixes such appliances and he helped us last time, coming to our house and we emptied our freezer and filthy fridge while he sat on a chair and pointed a hair dryer at the frozen mechanism in the back. Today we set out to do it ourselves. Since we cook everything now and were stocked up for quarantine, both the fridge and freezer were stocked full. We put as much as we could into the little bar fridge we keep around for drinks, then took two trips to my building on the MSU campus to unload everything we could into the breakroom unit (which, because of quarantine, was empty). We will defrost tonight—no rush with everything put away, so no hair dryer this time. Tomorrow we will return to my building and retrieve all of our food.

That was my day.

I also took the time to read from Donald Hays‘ 2005 collection, Dying Light, put out by Lawson Library, which was a division/subsidiary of MacAdam/Cage. Hays is an author I did not know before today, though I knew he was on the creative writing faculty down at Arkansas, which is just a hop, skip, and a thousand Walmarts from here. Into Donald Hays’ world we go.

Probably my favorite story is “Ackerman in Eden,” about a distinguished past-middle-aged poet who loses his mind and is committed to an asylum, from which he escapes with Tamika Jones, a much younger woman and fellow inmate. This all takes place during the war with Iraq, and Ackerman, as he travels west with Tamika, imagines he is in ancient cities, approaching ancient landmarks, from Eden to Mesopotamia, to the markets of Damascus and Cairo. Ackerman is delusional, yes, but he also knows, maybe for the first time in his life, what he wants.

“Orphans” is about a woman whose husband has, in his later years, decided to go to Russia and help orphans. He really does it, too: He retires from his dentistry practice, hooks up with a Russian financier, and moves to Russia to facilitate swanky new orphanages. Our protagonist, who’s just survived quintuple bypass surgery, doesn’t know what to think, as her husband literally has this epiphany and is gone within three weeks, eliminating what was supposed to be him taking care of her, not to mention their golden retirement years.

The final and title story, “Dying Light,” is about McMahon, an eighty-something guy who gets diagnosed with esophageal cancer early in the story and pretty much slowly dies throughout the next twenty-something pages. Of course, a lot happens in those twenty-something pages, depicted with solid writing, making me care about McMahon, a guy who’s number has come up, and in a nasty way.

As McMahon expires, he sets out to accomplish this and that. One thing is to continue to take care of Annie, his beloved wife of sixty-plus years, who doesn’t have cancer but is subtly depicted as worse-off than McMahon . Annie can’t hear, can’t really get around, and sometimes seems lost as she sits in a room. This might be where Hays is at his best: These people might just be racing each other to the finish line.

The main conflict is with Web, McMahon’s grown son, with whom he doesn’t have a very good relationship. As things often work out in short stories, McMahon, a middle-aged art professor, has just had an affair with a young student and his wife—whom McMahon despises (and it’s mutual)—has kicked him out. No time like the present for Web to move back home and get to know his dad again, to watch Braves games, and witness his father wither away before he dies—and paint him as well.

What’s interesting about this particular cancer story is McMahon’s attitude. It’s not quite as you’d expect, or like I’ve read before. He’s resistant—he doesn’t want radiation or chemo—but his spirits stay high, somehow, even though he can’t, for example, eat food. He’s really more focused on his wife and his son, and for stretches, you forget McMahon’s even sick. He’s the head of this little family and he’s going to see things through to the end.

There’s also a dignity to McMahon’s stubbornness, as he’s a guy who doesn’t want to be a burden and doesn’t put himself in front of anyone else. He genuinely hates Web’s wife, but when there’s a shot at a reconciliation, he nudges Web to go for it. He knows, accepts, that he’s not going to be there—really soon—and he’s okay with that. That’s why this is a good story, this endearing characterization, McMahon showing grace in his death, which is what, in the end, what we can all hope for.

Good to know another author in Donald Hays. I enjoyed the stories I read from Dying Light, tales about guys, in their later years, having to make decisions on how they’re going to play it out, how they’re going to see themselves to the door. It’s a good theme, one I don’t come across enough, not until I come across it that is, which isn’t all that far away.

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One thought on “June 4, 2020: “Dying Light” by Donald Hays

  1. Pingback: June 5, 2020: “The Purple Swamp Hen” by Penelope Lively – Story366

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