June 18, 2020: “A New Mohawk” by Chavisa Woods

Hello, Story366!

Today is June 18, what would have been my parents’ 65th Wedding Anniversary. Dad passed away over twenty-three years ago, so I guess they only made it to the 41st Anniversary together. I remember one of the things my mom said, on this day in 1997, how she really wanted to make it to fifty years, that it was a milestone they had been shooting for. Mom had three sisters—one of them is still with us and just turned 90—but only one of the four of them made it that 50th anniversary. I remember that 50th Anniversary dinner, for my aunt and uncle, and remember my mom was really excited for them, saw this as the benchmark of accomplishment, what she aspired to—like really, she looked at that as the ultimate life success: marital endurance. I mean, when you think about it, for my mom, it kind of makes sense, how that type of commitment represents, how it speaks to her values and her abilities. Of course, it’s nothing she could really control, save not divorcing my dad, but to me, here in 2020, it seems like an odd barometer of success.

The Karen and I have been married for almost fourteen years now, which makes it possible for us to get to that fifty benchmark. I mean, we’d be well into our eighties, but hey, people live that long, right? It could happen. And while it’s not written down on some list of ours, I suppose I would like to make it to fifty, be with her that long, see how all this plays out. She’s pretty neat. And besides, what else have I got to do?

Happy Anniversary, Mom and Dad. Thanks for having an accident.

Today I read from Chavisa Woods‘ 2016 collection, Things to Do When You’re Goth in the Country & Other Stories, out from Seven Stories Press. I’ve known about Woods’ work for a while, knew she was a writer with notable work, but I’m not sure I’d ever read her before today. So, here we go, Chavisa Woods.

The first piece I read was “A Little Aside,” by far the shortest piece in the book, a monologue about a guy who sounds sort of like a conspiracy theorist, listing all the things he hates about the world, some really tinfoil-hat stuff. Turns out he is that guy, plus so much more, as we eventually find out this monologue is being delivered from a maximum security prison.

The title story, “Things to Do When You’re Goth in the Country” delivers on its promise. I have to admit, Woods does way more with this concept, with this challenge, than I could have imagined. Are there things to do if your goth in the country? Sure, but it’s not what I expected, Woods’ mix of Midwestern gothic (it takes place in Illinois) with the macabre, and even some horror and sci-fi, goes beyond thorough in its exploration of the idea. I’m really impressed by this piece, because it gets as much out of an idea, unexpected gold, than I can remember a story getting.

Today I’m focusing on “A New Mohawk,” because it’s another really impressive story, somehow even more memorable than the title piece. Plus, I just gave my youngest son a mohawk last week. Anyway, this one’s about Sheldon Peters, a transgender man who at the start of the story, starts to date Kim, an activist whose idea of a date is a protest or rally (Kim would thrive in 2020). Sheldon, who really likes Kim—i.e., wants to sleep with here—plays along, holds signs, yells the right slogans (I thought about T.C. Boyle’s “Carnal Knowledge” a lot here). Their third date involves Israel and Palestine (specifics are left out), and after, they go to a concert, where they really click. They just about do it—right on the lawn at the show—Kim up on his lap, legs wrapped around him, no care in the world who’s watching. One of the conversations they have, in the midst of all this, is about mohawks, how Sheldon is thinking of getting one soon, an idea to which Kim is surprisingly attracted.

That’s all setup, though, as the story seriously kicks in when Sheldon wakes up the next day, Gregor Samsa-style, with his desired mohawk (he was drunk and cut his hair, I was thinking …), but it’s not a mohwk: It’s the Gaza Strip.

So, that’s what this story is, Sheldon, formerly Chelle, and how he’s got a miniature Gaza Strip on his head. Woods, again here, really explores her concept, gets all that she can out of it. Sheldon spends some time in the mirror, checking it out. He feels the explosions from bombs going off—itchy as hell—tiny victims of bombings falling from his head. Sheldon goes to a doctor for help. He goes to his mother, who still calls him Chelle, for advice. Kim helps him prep for news shows where he appears as a talking head, stuck between Palestinian scholars and Jewish politicians. He buries the victims in tiny trays—as clever as this concept is, as fun as it comes off, Woods never lets us forget what’s really happening here on Sheldon’s head.

On top of this bloody conflict, we explore Sheldon as well. This story’s really about his transformation, the extremes of acceptance he experiences, Kim on one side and his mom on the other. The actual mohawk, this line of hair, represents more than a line drawn by politicians back in the forties. Like any good piece of magical realism, Woods doesn’t forget it’s not really about the magic, but instead the realism, or else is just doesn’t work. What a fantastic story.

I’ve been so lucky this past week or so as I’ve read so many new authors and it seems like I’ve discovered a new literary hero every time. Add Chavisa Woods to that list, as she has a wicked, endless imagination and the skills to really follow through with these dark, zany, and soulful ideas. Things to Do When You’re Got in the Country is another must-read book.

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