August 6, 2020: “Unblinking” by Lisa Lenzo

A good Thursday to you, Story366!

I write to you from Galena, Illinois, a charming little city in the northwest corner of the state, not all that far from Iowa and Wisconsin. I’ve always wanted to come her, having heard great things about it. It’s where Ulysses S. Grant settled after the war, from where he was elected president—he now rents his home out to a company who gives tours. There’s also about a mile stretch of Main Street, filled with fudge shops, knicknack stores, and restaurants—my boys are gorging themselves on candy right now. We also looked into a haunted tour—lots of ghosts in Galena, I guess—but maybe we don’t want to poke that bear.

Yesterday, I spoke of how great it was to be back in Illinois, to see corn fields, to experience flat. Today, it was nice to see all those Illinois license plates, not to mention so much Cub blue. We spent some time in Iowa today, which is home to the Triple A club, so royal blue stretches from Lake Michigan all the way to Nebraska. That’s the kind of belt I like to be in, me with my World Series hat and Cub face mask. Not that the Cardinal fans in Missouri aren’t swell, but hey, sometimes you want to sleep in your own bed.

For today’s post, I read from Lisa Lenzo‘s collection, Unblinking, out from Wayne State University Press in 2019 as part of their Made in Michigan Writers Series. I’m pretty sure this is the first time I’ve read something of Lenzo’s, though she has a couple of other books, including a collection that won a John Simmons Award. Always more than happy to read a new author, and in fact, that’s what I’m here for.

The stories in Unblinking are all about Detroit and Detroiters, covering a wide variety of subjects and a diverse population of people. The first story, “In the White Man’s House,” explores race, particularly biracial issues, as the characters are just about all part white, part black, and apparently, everyone can pass for either. The story is about two friends, Jay and Tremaine, and is told from Tremaine’s perspective. Jay, who is from wealthy but very light-skinned parents, is unhappy about how light-skinned he is, while Tremaine, or Tree, is darker skinned, is poor, and is growing tired of Jay complaining about his life. Jay, Tree, and Melanie—Tree’s white girlfriend who everyone thinks is black—attend at a basketball game at the fairgrounds, where a race riot between the black kids at their school and the Arab kids from Dearborn is on the verge of breaking out. This turns out to be the last real night Jay and Tree hang out, which we find out from a little bit of double-voicing on Lenzo’s part.

“Note to the New Owners” is a short piece about a little girl moving from the city to the suburbs. The girl is finishing a note her mother started and threw away, a note that tells the future residents about different things, from the morrels that grow in the yard to how the pump box freezes over at first frost. The little girl goes much more in depth, and is tragically adorable, as we find out more personal things, like why they’re moving, and who from their family didn’t make it.

The title story exudes this same mix of hope and tragedy. This one’s about Rosie and Ralph, an aging couple who are dealing with Ralph’s Parkinson’s and the resulting dementia. Ralph is confined to a wheel chair, and sometimes, talks to his dead brother, thinking Johnny is in the room. Mostly, though, they’re trying to make it work, trying to hold on in their condo for as long as they can.

One night, Ralph runs out of his adult diapers, and instead of waiting for help the next day, they decide to venture out, walk down the street to the market. The real conflict comes when they realize, downstairs and out of their building, that they’ve forgotten Ralph’s footrests, which not only rest his feet, but hold him upright and in his chair. The couple make the decision to move forward, to work it out, but that’s the wrong decision. So, so wrong.

Ralph can’t stay in his chair, and even the few blocks to the store and back prove impossible. After several attempts to prop Ralph up, he falls out of the chair. A homeless man help him up, and after a painful tenure in the store, making it home seems like an impossibility.

Halfway back to their condo, Ralph slips to the ground again, this time landing flat on his back. Rosie does not know what to do, but is just as concerned with the group of four youths approaching them. A friend of theirs was shot on this block not too long ago, and, well, Rosie is old and she and Ralph are helpless and it’s dark out and those approaching youths are black and …; I think you know what this story is about, what Lenzo is going for, what anxieties within Rosie she’s invoking, founded or un.

And that’s as far into this story as I’ll go.

It’s always great to discover a new author, and I enjoyed reading from Unblinking, Lisa Lenzo’s second story collection. These are stories that depict the complexities of Detroit and its residents, diverse, strong people who overcome so much, but still look forward, carry on, stay in good spirits. Seems pretty consistent with the people I know from Detroit, Lenzo capturing her city rather accurately, with great intensity, dignity, and artistry.

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August 5, 2020: “Pet” by Kristine Ong Muslim

Today is the day of the wednes, Story366!

On the road! Writing this, rather late in the game, from a hotel in Springfield, Illinois. I just downed a whole lot of Indian food—some of the best I’ve had in a while—and listened to the Cubs beat the Royals for their sixth win in a row. It’s a good night, by most any standard.

Driving through the cornfields that border I-55 almost brought me to tears, I have to admit. The last time I traveled was for my mother-in-law’s funeral back in January, not the most festive occasion, filled with gray skies, both literal and figurative. Today was a gorgeous day, and seeing those familiar fields, the sun lighting the gold tassels of the corn that fleck the green, the neat rows you could set a watch to, and most of all, the flatness—it really brought me back. I like the Ozarks and the beauty that encompasses it, sure. But there’s something about the plains, the lack of topography, and the ability to see as far as my eyes can see, straight ahead and in any direction, that just makes me feel content. COVID-19 has made me a little anxious, as it has us all, but driving across the Mississippi and into Illinois this afternoon, then laying my eyes upon the open fields? I, for the first time this year, feel like I’m at ease.

For today’s post, I tackled Kristine Ong Muslim‘s Age of Blight, out in 2016 from Unnamed Press. Muslim wears a lot of hats, publishing work in several genres, work I’ve always enjoyed when I’ve come across it. I’m thrilled to have gotten ahold of Age of Blight and read it for today, as it was a real pleasure. Let’s discuss.

This book comes with a foreward, one that tells us we are going to run into things that we’ve perhaps run into before, such as Bardenstan, a suburb in this world, and Outerbridge, the only place left in America where plants grow in soil. Did I mention this happens about a hundred years into the future, after a huge incident, which takes place in Bardenstan? Well, the foreward lets us know and now I’m telling you. There’s an island, too, beyond. So, FYI, it’s not 2020, and somehow, worse.

The book is also cut up into different sections, names with some pretty apt titles, such as “Animals,” which includes three stories about animals; “Children,” which features stories about kids; and “Instead of Human,” which is about things that are kinda-sort human, but not. So, the titles in this books make a lot of sense, make up an easy-to-follow filing system (unlike the vaguery of Zachary Doss’s dividers from a few of days ago).

Onto the stories. I read all three of those pieces in “Animals,” the first of which is “Leviathan.” This one’s about the discovery of that titular creature, how a certain scholar stumbled upon it, then fame and fortune. “The Wire Mother” is about a woman working in a research lab with a deranged scientist, a man so focused on torturing monkeys—and in the worst ways he can conceive—it’s hard to remember what he’d ever set out to discover. “The Ghost of Laika Encounters a Satellite” is aptly titled, as that’s what happens, that poor Russian space dog existing out there, beyond, and making observations.

I read something from the other sections of the book, at least one story, and really liked everything I came across. “The Playground” from “Children” is about the absurd concept of a playground after the world ends. “Day of the Builders,” from the last section, “The Age of Blight,” is about a group of outsiders, the Builders, who come to the devastated world with eyes on rebuilding, a project that might not be appreciated. The whole book seems to tell a story about this post-apocalyptic world, a world that Muslim fashions in a way I’ve never seen anyone do it before. This is fresh and funny and speculative, a true testament to creativity and insight.

My favorite stories are from the “Instead of Human” section. I could have written about “Zombie Sister,” which again, is aptly named, but instead chose “Pet,” which is just creepy-weird-good. “Zombie Sister” depicts what happens in this landscape when a nuclear family sees one of its daughters die, then come back, the whole thing told from the POV of her sister, who’s pretty over it from the get-go. There’s a sly distinction to this zombie story, which we’ve had our share of of late, as it’s hard to be shocked by a zombie when the world is so fucked up already—and when the zombie has mostly retains her humanity (i.e., annoying sister traits).

“Pet,” though, is something new. Like every family has a zombie in the previous story, everyone is issued a pet in “Pet,” a sort-of half-human, half-dog thing. The pet used to walk upright, but doesn’t anymore, and in general, is a pretty awful pet, howling and baying and causing all kinds of damage.

Our narrator/protagonist in this story, at the outset, talks about the pet returning, informs us that he hears scratching at the doggie door, which he’s nailed shut. He catches us up, lets us know that the pet was too much, too unruly, and too unpleasant to keep. He employed an age-old tactic, driving the pet out to the woods, letting it out of the car, then speeding away. The forest will take care of its unpleasantness, he assumed, case closed.

But yeah, the pet comes back, scratches at the door. And not only does it scratch at the door, but it evolves. Suddenly, this mongrel beast is walking upright again. Not only that, but there’s an exchange, as the narrator suddenly finds himself eating raw meat, from the floor, on all fours. It’s a strange, compelling, and bizarre switch, kind of terrifying, but also kind of magical. Kudos to Muslim for creating this view of humanity, in a landscape where the word is far from defined.

Kristine Ong Muslim’s Age of Blight is a big-concept book and delivers on its concept. I soooooo wish I’d read this book before I taught my dystopian lit class this past intersession, as I easily would have put this on the syllabus, had my students explore this weird and wonderful world that Muslim posits. It’s as unpredicable as it is clever, as heartfelt as it is chaotic, and just plain fun to read. Yay, books!

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August 4, 2020: “Mad Country” by Samrat Upadhyay

Hello hello hello, Story366!

So, me and the boys are finished with summer classes and the Karen has some time off coming up. All of a sudden, we’re planning a trip out of town. We were set on Mt. Rushmore, but realize this might coincide with the Sturgis bike week, and we just don’t need so many people. Most places we checked in Colorado/Rocky Mountain State Park, our second option, are booked. We’re looking at other options.

What we’ve found out is—and I’m not sure why this is at all surprising—it’s hard to find a place to travel to in 2020. Normally, on such short notice, it’d be hard, anyway. This year, however, it’s a nightmare. A lot of places are closed, too many others don’t have any coronavirus protocols in place, and most nice destinations are booked. So, we don’t have a lot of time and we have even fewer options.

What’s important? Getting away and being with each other. We have not left the Ozarks, or even a twenty-five-mile radius of Springield in ages, well before COVID-19 hit, probably since last year. The Ozarks are beautiful, but we’re sick of being here, sick of looking at the same highways, taking the same routes, feeling the same state of mind. We aren’t going shark-fishing or paragliding or snowboarding or anything particularly adventurous. We just want to be somewhere else for a few days, see different people, witness a new set of numbers on the highway signs. Maybe eat a few good takeout meals, snap some photos in front of things we’ve never been in front of before. With such a low bar, you’d think I could figure out something. I’ll keep you posted.

Today’s post led me to Mad Country by Nepalese writer Samrat Upadhyay, a book released in 2017 by Soho Press. I met Upadhyay years and years ago when he visited Bowling Green as part of its writing series, and am pretty sure I had dinner with him, maybe even some drinks after. He was reading from his then-new novel, The Guru of Love, which I remember as being funny, a book I bought, had signed, and still own. I was glad to get ahold of his collection and see what he does with a story, and as it usually goes, was not disappointed.

“What Will Happen to the Sharma Family” is a rare third-omniscient story that works, this one about the Sharmas, Mr. and Mrs. Sharma and Nilesh, their lazy son, and Nilima, their fat and smart daughter (that’s how they’re described throughout, by the way). They head out from Katmandu to Bombay, a trip that’s a disaster from the get-go, including a forced landing, a robbery, and nobody home when they get to their cousins’ house in the city. They return home early, only to have the real disasters start. Mr. Sharma courts his neighbor’s maid. Nilima spends a night with her boyfriend in a hotel—that’s still a cultural no-no in this world and time—forcing an engagement. And Nilesh spends his days at the cinema, wanting to be a movie start. Things get worse before they get better for this clan, who seem set on making some very human mistakes in pursuit of what they want.

“An Affair Before the Earthquake” features the love affair between a young man and young woman. It’s told from the perspective of the young man, who knows he’s dating way out of his league. He spends as much time worrying he’s not worthy of his high-spirited lover as he spends loving her. When she plans to head to America to earn a masters degree, his anxiety rises exponentially, fearing that once she leaves, he’ll lose her forever.

The title story, “Mad Country,” is about Anamika Gurung, the owner of a prominent construction company. Her son, Ramesh, is a fuck-up. She is called one day in the midst of an important business meeting, large contracts on the table, to come to the school, to get Ramesh, as he’s in serious trouble. She regretfully leaves the meeting to go to the school, just in time to see her son being taken out in handcuffs. When she protests, demands to know why he is being arrested, the cops push her aside, refuse to give her any information.

Anamika goes home to take care of her ailing husband, not telling him what’s happened, not wanting him to worry. She is a woman who plans on taking care of this situation, assumes all will be well, because she is used to telling people what to do and getting what she wants. She realizes nothing will come of her driving across town at night, so she waits until morning to go to the station and again demand to see her son, that he be released, or to at least know what he’s done.

Instead of satisfaction, Anamika is slapped—literally, and hard, right in the face—and put in handcuffs, then escorted to a cell. She tries apologizing, to no avail but even then, assumes that things will work out, that they are teaching her and her arrogance a lesson. A day goes by before she starts to worry, and with good reason: Anamika soon finds herself in a van for a three-hour journey to a maximum-security prison.

Lucky for Anamika, Sita is with her for her entire journey. Sita seems like an otherwordly figure, a guardian-angel type, a woman who was in the lockup back at the police station, rides with her in the van, and is made her cellmate. Whereas Anamika still believes her detention is a mistake that will soon be recognized, Sita has accepted her fate, is calm, and offers Anamika her help. Anamika only regards her as a criminal, a real one, and is hesitant to even talk to her—she even wants to switch cellmates, to get rid of her. Lucky for her, that’s not allowed.

Anamika finds out she is a political prisoner, though she has no idea what revolution she is a part of. She’s never told anything, is never allowed contact with her family, and is not allowed an attorney. It’s a long while before Anamika accepts her situation. Days go by, then weeks, then months. Eventually, Anamika accepts Sita’s friendship, and at one point, they share the bottom bunk instead of separating as they sleep. Their relationship isn’t sexual, at least not overtly, though Sita braids and oils her hair and touches her an awful lot. It’s only because of Sita’s tenderness and compassion that Anamika survives.

The story hits a climax, of sorts, when it’s announced that male political prisoners will be bused in, and in some perverse ceremony, will be paired up with the women for sex. Sita knows that Anamika won’t survive such an assault. Trying to help is Amrit, a kind guard who may or may not be receiving sexual favors from Sita, but he can only do so much.

I won’t go any further into this story’s plot, won’t reveal Anamika’s fate, as that’s for you to discover for yourself. It’s an intense story, though, one where you can feel Anamika’s frustration, the injustice, her helplessness. A small part of this is a privileged and arrogant woman getting taken down a peg, but that lesson runs out by the end of that first day and this just becomes unlawful imprisonment. Upadhyay is up to the task, turning this from what seems to be a simple misunderstanding to a nightmare, making us feel the pain right along with his victimized protagonist.

I love Samrat Upadhyay’s approach to story in Mad Country, positioning his average but flawed characters in tense situations, watching them writhe, trying to figure things out, perhaps even grow. That last part doesn’t always happen, as these aren’t that type of story, the kind with complete character arcs and happy endings. This is what makes this book stand out to me, how far Upadhyay is willing to see karma carried out.

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August 3, 2020: “Where We Land” by Daryl Farmer

Monday’s here, Story366, and so are you.

Today was a good day because I woke up and turned my grades in. The bad part of that was, I didn’t get to bed until three a.m., finishing up one class and mostly finishing another, all on top of yesterday‘s post. I only had about an hour of work to do this morning, though, just the actual calculations of grades, and then turning them into the system. Then I was done. That means today is the first day that I had no teaching to do since spring break; granted, that spring break was two—or was it three?—weeks long, COVID making us all step back and figure out what to do.  Because I taught summer and intersession, no actual time was in-between, and I’ve been feeling it. I like teaching, but this has been a bit of a challenge, not being able to take a breather, to clear my mind. I get to do that for two weeks starting today, before the fall semester starts. I’ll have to do a lot of planning for fall—contingencies on top of contingencies—but that’s okay, as I’m not going to even look at Blackboard for at least a week. And to think, if I would have been organized and ambitious, I could have taught this intersession, too, starting today, a two-week sprint that might have killed me. I just thank whatever I was doing the day that application was due, whatever made me miss the deadline and give me this time.

Daryl Farmer‘s collection, Where We Land, is today’s featured book, a book out in 2016 from Brighthorse Books. I’ve read some of Farmer’s work before, scattered about lit mags, but it’s always good to get someone’s whole book, their debut, to see their stories together. Today is of course no exception, so here we go, some Daryl Farmer.

“Glass Fragments on the Shoulder of Highway 35” is the first story I read, from the middle of the book, and is sort of a stream-of-consciousness exploration into one man’s love affair with a woman, as well as his obsession with bears and bear attacks. The story jumps all over the place, in time, across America, and within this guy’s head as he navigates his pontifications and some genuine heartbreak. The story’s also told in second person, and that particular effect seems to fit this story well.

“Anniversary” is a one-sentence, seven-page story about a guy on his sixtieth anniversary, having just lost his wife the previous spring. We see his heartbreak—there’s that word again—as we trace his relationship from its inception, through marriage, through the loss of a child, through their golden years, and then his widowerdom, which isn’t going all that well, being alone after having someone all those years.

The last story in the collection is the title story, “Where We Land,” and is my favorite. This one’s about Mitchell Jensen, a former NFL quarterback who’s settled in Alaska. He was never much of a pro, and in fact, was a third-stringer who played exactly one play in the NFL (a five-yard loss). Still, he had been a college star at a tiny school, made just over a million dollars, and was able to buy a place in Colorado and another in Alaska with his earnings, retire in his late twenties. He’s an affable, humble guy, too, traits that Farmer weaves throughout his characterization, a disposition that makes him so likeable and this story very, very readable.

With him in Alaska is Buddha, his former right tackle from college, a big Samoan who actually got to Alaska first, drew him there. The two sit on Mitchell’s houseboat—his third property—fishing and drinking beer. It’s not a bad life.

One thing that’s not perfect is the love life, Mitchell and Buddha both maneuvering some vicarious situations. Mitchell is involved with Renita, a local tour guide who leads llama treks into the wilderness. Renita is a tough one to figure out, we discover. When she and Mitchell met, she was not impressed by his status as a former pro QB, immediately noting that she’d dated a U.S. Senator, wanting nothing to do with someone who thinks she’ll be infatuated. It takes a while for her to take to him, agreeing to see him again only after he goes on one of her treks, and only if he doesn’t call it a date. They spend time together, doing date-like stuff, but Renita keeps him at arm’s length, much to his chagrin.

There’s another subplot on top of all this, what kind of explains how Mitchell got to Alaska. There’s a longstanding riff between him and his father, Mitchell giving up on his pro  career long before Dad wanted him to be done. This led to words, which led to a brawl, then Mitchell moving as far away in the U.S. as he could, going from Florida to Alaska, forgetting to charge his phone for months at a time.

There really isn’t any rising action, climax, or much of a plot to “Where We Land,” as the story isn’t headed anywhere, no big reunion with Dad, no grand romantic gesture with Renita. This story is all about setting, attitude, and character, Mitchell just fine on the sidelines, enjoying the view, only slightly less than content that he may never get his chance, may never really shine. It’s so enjoyable to read, though, to get to know Mitchell, to see the world from his eyes.

Reading the stories in Daryl Farmer’s Where We Land was time well spent today, Farmer knowing his way around a story, knowing a bevy of ways to depict heartbreak, how men are tortured by what they can’t have, what they’ve lost. These stories—pretty much all set  in cold places like Alaska and Sault Ste. Marie—reflect a kind of loneliness, one at which Farmer seems rather adept.

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August 2, 2020: “Universal Boyfriend Theory” by Zachary Doss

Hello there, Story366!

No intro section of the blog today, as I’m finalizing my grades from two summer classes and am running out of time. Plus, I’m struck by the book I read today and don’t really feel like talking about this or that.

To explain, today I read from Zachary Doss‘s collection, Boy Oh Boy, fresh out from Red Hen Press as a winner of the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction. Upon finishing the stories, I flipped back to the bio on the final page, found out some things about Doss, the last of which is that he passed away back in 2018. I was struck pretty hard by this, as I’d just been to his page on FB to friend him and then followed him on Twitter, just so I can tag him in this post, and didn’t notice anything about his passing. So I’m writing this now with a heavy heart, to see that this young writer, so incredibly talented, having passed before I could know him or his work, that he never saw this book come to print. That sucks. Still, let’s talk about what Boy Oh Boy is.

Like I said, this is a book of shorts, though there’s a couple of long pieces hidden within. The book is also cut up into different sections, which I’ll explain as I go along. What you mainly need to know about this book, though, is that all the stories are all written in the same voice, are told in second person with you as the protagonist—there’s never an actual name in this story—and that all of the stories surround a boyfriend or boyfriends, who figure prominently into the plots and motifs and pretty much everything. Most of the stories, in fact, begin “Your boyfriend …” and then go into whatever the boyfriend is doing or wanting. Latstly, while this isn’t obvious right away, the you in these stories is male, too. Meaning this is a queer-themed book, something you either knew going in—I read it on the back cover—or had to surmise after reading quite a few pieces.

Since most of the stories are shorts, I read a lot of them. The first story, in the first section, “Your Boyfriend Always Has Something He Wants to Do,” is “Trolling,” about a boyfriend leaving troll dolls all over the place, until it becomes an issue, until it ends the relationship, until the boyfriend denies ever having done it. Continuing into that first section, “Cold Fish” is about the boyfriend wanting to be left at the lake, the you wondering why, having to explain what happened to him to his mother—”lake bear” is one possibility. “Godzilla” pits the boyfriend as a businessman, selling soaps and other luxury items in a story that’s only a couple of feet tall, customers packing in, somehow, the store a huge success—though imaginary. “Trash Pope” has the boyfriend imagining himself as pope, though he knows nothing about Catholicism, while “The Natural Man” features a boyfriend with grown-out hair. The stories are all a page or two long at most, are all absurd and bordering on fantastical, and most of all, depict how the you and the boyfriend aren’t getting along, have different ideas of the world.

In the second section, “And Then He Asks, What Would You Do Differently?” the stories are titled “How the Day Goes I,” “How the Day Goes II,” and so on, though the stories seem to be similar to those in the first section. The boyfriend takes on some absurd pursuit or attitude and the you deals with it. It’s fun, each and every time, as Doss doesn’t let up on the creativity, sense of humor, or tension.

I read stories from each section of the book, all of them moving along the same basic format. I made my way to one of the longer stories, just to see what Doss does with that form. The best way to put it is that he extrapolates what he’s done up to this point, one of his boyfriend stories, only thirty pages long. “Universal Boyfriend Theory” is about four people—the narrator, the poet, the soldier, and the navigator—who have been traveling through space for two hundred years. Their original mission is unclear at this point, but for two hundred years, these four travelers have interacted in every combination possible, pairing off romantically and sexually in every combination, existing as a foursome. They also spend periods living alone, celibate, basically tired of each other. It’s certainly further-reaching than any of the previous stories, but also feels like the same vein, the same … universe.

At the outset of the story, the travelers discover what they call “the boyfriend singularity” at the center of the universe. Here, all kinds, every kind, of boyfriend, is created, tall, short, fat, thin, needy independent. Every kind of boyfriend is born here like some kind of boyfriend creation myth. There are so many boyfriends, the four travelers don’t know what to do with them, or if they should do anything.

What ensues from then on is raised tension. The four travelers, oh-so-familiar with each other, are all affected differently by the discovery of this this cosmic boyfriend factory. Some want to exploit the boyfriends for the boyfriendness—new blood!. Others want to leave them alone, not interrupt the harmony they’ve achieved, what’s kept them alive for so long.

Eventually, a boyfriend does make his way onto the ship, moves amongst the four characters, and of course causes the discord that some of them had feared. I won’t reveal what happens from there—it sticks with Doss’s absurd and skeptic outlook—but it’s a lot of fun, with a lot of wisdom, a whole lot of something I’ve never read before.

My heart broke a little after I read from Boy Oh Boy, discovering that this new (to me) and talented author had already passed, long before I discovered his work. This is a vibrant and original books about relationships, about the doldrums and adventures and unexpected aspects of any pairing, be it with boyfriend, girlfriend, or whathaveyou. It’s slyly clever and wholly entertaining, always surprising, and truer than some of these exploits might indicate. This is a good book, the efforts a storyteller taken from us too soon. I’m grateful we have this, at least, to remember him by, that I got to know his work today.

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August 1, 2020: “Heavy Lifting” by Jennifer Morales

Happy Saturday, Story366!

A nice change of pace from grading and algebra and reading this morning: a car wash. This morning, one of the Scouts in my older boy’s troop held a charity car wash in the parking lot of the church where we meet. After tying up a lot of those loose ends yesterday, it was nice to get up early, get outside, and even get a little wet. Not a whole lot of cars came through, so the kid only raised about three hundred bucks, but that’s actually great for this kind of thing . Still, what I liked about it was that it didn’t involve me being inside, hunched over my computer, reading things or typing things or figuring quadratic equations. I also talked to humans who weren’t my immediate family. It was just the kick in the pants I needed to realized that today is August 1, I start my semester on August 17, and I’d best get going lest I run out of fresh air and sunlight. So, my suggestion to you is, if you’re in the doldrums over COVID-19 quarantine, throw together a car wash. Good for what ails you.

For today’s post, I read from Jennifer Morales‘ collection, Meet Me Halfway: Milwaukee Stories, out in 2015 from Terrace Books (an imprint of the University of Wisconsin Press). I’d never read anything by Morales before today, so as alway, I was more than happy to take a look, learn about this new author, and enjoy some short stories.

“Heavy Lifting” is the first story in the book and is told from the third-person point of view of Margaret Czarnecki, an old widow living in Milwaukee. The first line of the story announces, “Johnquell’s neck is broken and chances are he won’t walk again.” It’s a little frame, this line, as we immediately go backward and find out who’s telling this story, who Johnquell is, and how his neck got broken. Turns out Johnquell breaks his neck moving a heavy bookcase for our protagonist, his neighbor, Mrs. Czarnecki, or Margie. He tries carrying the thing up her stairs, with the books still on it, and falls backwards. Within seconds, Johnquell is on the bottom of the stairs with the bookcase on his neck, bleeding from several places.

Margie calls 911 and the ambulance comes—the EMT even says, “Oh, geez,” when he spies the scene—and soon Johnquell is on his way to the hospital. This is when his little sister sees what’s going on outside, tells everyone inside, and soon, other sisters and Mom are outside, watching this all unfold, scattering to follow Johnquell.

Margie doesn’t know what’s really happened for a while, but generally believes Johnquell is okay—the EMT said as much as they wheeled him out, that they’d take care of him and not to worry. She doesn’t find out what really happened until Gloria Tibbetts, Johnquell’s mom, comes to visit her a couple of days later. She informs Margie of the broken neck (we’re caught up with that first line at this point), and walks around Margie’s house, looking at the stairs, the bookshelf (off to the side, where the EMT left it), the puddle of blood in the carpet. Margie is panicking, not knowing what Gloria wants, and keeps asking her that, what she can do for her. At one point, so anxious, Margie blurts out that what happened to Johnquell wasn’t her fault. Gloria agees, eerily calm, and says it was no one’s fault. She asks Margie to pray for her son and leaves.

Not even a day later, however, Gloria calls Margie and says she’s at the hospital, asks her to look in on her girls. Margie, who really never leaves the house except to go to bingo on Tuesdays and church on Sundays, doesn’t know what she means; Gloria has hung up before she can refuse. She gets dressed, heads over, and checks on the girls, teens and tweens. One of the girls asks what day it is, and when she discovers it’s Tuesday, she wants fried chicken because Tuesday is Chicken Day. The oldest sister tells Margie she doesn’t have to make chicken, that their aunt is coming to take them to dinner, but Margie insists, says she’ll make chicken.

Margie employs the help of her best friend, Frances, telling her they have to make fried chicken for the neighbor kids. Frances is fine with it as long as they are done by four to get to early-bird bingo. The two shop, then go to the neighbors’ house to cook. Right as they finish, the aunt comes and doesn’t really understand why she’s there—it’s kind of tense—and Margie and Frances leave despite the youngest girl, Johnelle, begging them to stay. The ladies have to get to bingo, though, so off they go (my mom played bingo for years, and, well, you can’t keep an old lady from her bingo).

When Margie gets home that night, she finds a bag on her porch, a bag filled with a portion of the dinner she made the girls, poundcake, potatoes, chicken, everything. There’s a note from the girls, thanking her, and Margie is genuinely moved.

Okay, I should probably mention a few things about this book before going any further. For one, there’s a lot of racial tension here. Margie is an old Polish lady in a neighborhood that used to be all white, but has been well integrated for years. Johnquell and his family is black, and sometimes, Margie says things like, “He’s a black,” because she feels she needs to clarify this to people like Frances. There’s more subtle differences, for sure, but the whole time, we get the idea that it’s quite uncomfortable for Margie to be in her neighbors’ house—though not uncomfortable for her to ask that Johnquell come over and help her move heavy shit. I wouldn’t say Margie’s racist, but she’s certainly not in her element talking to people who are different from her (okay, that’s at least a little racist in and of itself).

On top of that, I soon found out that this is a book of interrelated stories, that what happens in this story sets off a domino effect, is referred to throughout the entire book as its inciting incident. What happens? I wouldn’t normally reveal that, but since this is the first story and I can’t really talk about the rest of what I’ve read otherwise, here goes: Johnquell dies. After Margie opens the bag of food, is touched by the gesture, she gets a call from the aunt, asking her to look after the girls again, that it will be a few hours before she can drive Gloria home. That’s how this collection starts off, how the rest of it is formed, Johnquell’s death as a result of the accident in Margie’s house.

To note, Johnquell was an honors student at his high school, a mostly white school out in the suburbs, where he went as part of a volunteer integration program. He was not only a top student, but was a star football player, earning a scholarship to the University of Wisconsin, the big time. Does any of this make the story more tragic, that Johnquell’s future was so bright? No, of course not. But it’s who he was, not just some kid under a bookshelf, in a coffin.

I jumped ahead a bit and found a story from Johnelle’s point of view, “Got the Ball” (which is actually how I realized that these stories were connects, when I discovered her name here). Here, Johnelle, or Nelly, is in kindergarten and gets into a fight with Misty, a white girl who’s got the ball and won’t give it to her. Things escalate over a couple of days, and soon Nelly has sand in her hair and Gloria is calling the white girl’s mom. Morales shows us the one side of that conversation—what Nelly can hear—and at conversation’s end, it doesn’t appear as if Gloria is all that happy. The two families come in close contact at the term-ending Christmas party, where Nelly navigates the girl and her mom, Gloria behind her, watching their every move.

“Revision” is about Stu, a retired high school history teacher who came back to sub for a while when the regular teacher got cancer. There he met Johnquell and this story is set on the day of Johnquell’s funeral. Stu feels he needs to go, but on the way, we find out he’s a pretty big conservative and a way more obvious racist than Margie. He listens to a Rush Limbaugh-like talkshow and makes inner-dialogue comments about all the black people he passes on the way to the church. He also gets into a car accident with a man he finds out is Johnquell’s uncle, and the two exchange info and pleasantries. All the while, Stu is thinking about a paper Johnquell turned in about the Vietnam war, about an incident that Stu just happened to be an actual part of as an MP, an issue of racial injustice. Stu did not see eye to eye on the incident with Johnquell, and because he’s a primary source, takes offense to Johnquell revising the situation. When he meets up with Gloria to give his condolences, he finds that she knows very much who he is, is aware of the debate he’d had with her son before his death.

I grew up in an old white Polish town, Calumet City, Illinois, one that became more and more integrated as I got older, one that’s pretty much split into thirds between whites, blacks, and Latinos now. I completely see the setting that Jennifer Morales is going for here, depicting how some people don’t really like change, how they react when they face it, and how everyone still needs to be human to each other, grow and adapt. What a collection Meet Me Halfway is to read now, a timely reminder of how these problems aren’t new. Too bad in this book, like in 2020 with George Floyd’s death, that it takes a tragedy to bring people together, to get some people thinking about their priorities, for change to really happen. I’m grateful for this book, for the time I spent with it today.

Black Lives Matter.

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