August 12, 2020: “Why Did I Ever Think This Was a Good Idea?” by Kelly Fordon

Happy Anniversary to me, Story366!

Yes, today is my wedding anniversary. The Karen and I hitched our wagons together fourteen years ago today, making me the happiest guy in the world. It’s pretty easy to say sweet things about your sweetie on your anniversary, but I mean it when I say this: Karen is the absolute perfect person, the perfect person for me, and probably saved me from all kinds of horrible alternate futures by keeping me in hers. Maybe this is something she’ll use against me in court one day, but I’m pretty sure Karen saved my life, multiple times over. I love you, K-Dawg! Happy Anniversary.

For today’s post, I read through Kelly Fordon‘s second story collection, I Have the Answer, out in 2019 from Wayne State University Press as part of its Made in Michigan Writers Series. As this is a Two-Timers Week at Story366—weeks when I cover authors for the second time, for a different book—that means I’ve written about Fordon here before. The first time was back in April of 2016, when I detailed “The Great Gatsby Party” from her debut collection, Garden for the Blind. I’m a fan of Fordon’s work, knowing her for a long time, having gotten to work with her in a workshop way back when. She’s done nothing but write great stories (and non-story-type  things) since, and nothing could make me happier.

“The Shorebirds and the Shaman,” the lead story, is about Corinne, whose husband dies at 51, just a few weeks after retirement. Corinne goes into the expected funk after this, working from home, ordering in, never sojourning outside for months. Her friend, Anne, who was also their family therapist, decides she needs rousing and talks her into a weekend at a lake cabin. Corinne eventually concedes. When she gets there, she finds that Anne has a planned a Constellation Work weekend, where therapists get together and work on their problems, using a constellation’s worth of approaches. Corinne wants to leave, feeling betrayed by Anne, but since she didn’t drive, she stays and reluctantly takes part. The question here is, how long can Corinne’s skepticism survive amongst so many people, with so many tools, all looking to help her out?

The next story, “Jungle Life,” is about woman whose father begins to show the early signs of dementia. At her doctor’s advice—”his mind is like a burning library”—she starts to record him, asking her to tell him the stories of his life, some new, some old. One of the newish tales her father tells is of his time in New Guinea, as a Marine fighting the Japanese in World War II. He tells the story of how he became tight with a man named Stanton. When Stanton is killed, they need to leave him behind, only to find him in a bunker later on, basically eaten by the starving Japanese soldiers. Our narrator is taken aback by this, as her father has never told this to her before. She wonders how true that this, and all of his other stories, really are.

The last story in the book is “Why Did I Ever Think This Was a Good Idea?” and I skipped ahead to it, choosing it as today’s featured rundown. This story highlights Bridget, a middle-aged painter who more or less gave up her career to raise her family. Before she knew it, she had three kids, including a late addition, who demanded all her attention. She found out she couldn’t paint and do a good job as a parent (sounds familiar somehow …) and she chose being a good parent over her work (which sounds less familiar …).

Her youngest child, William, has graduated from high school and has become a highly unlikeable human. He sleeps late, gets up and mows a bunch of lawns, sleeps some more, then goes out drinking until the wee hours in the morning. When he’s home and awake, he plays incredibly obscene and loud music. In general, he acts like a dick whenever confronted. Bridget wonders if she even likes William at this point, a kid she’s sacrificed so much for, yet seems so entirely ungrateful.

Bridget’s dream of a quiet house is threatened when William decides to take a skip year, to delay his freshman year at Oberlin. Her fears are somewhat confused when William announces he’ll be spending several months in Beijing, not to study, not to teach, but to simply travel. He wants to see the Great Wall. William isn’t asking permission, either, as he buys his ticket with his lawn money and announces his departure date. His father is indifferent, but Bridget is left confused.

The story focuses on the final days before William leaves. At first, William is up to his old tricks, treating Bridget like garbage. There’s a scene where he catches her dancing to Abba (ABBA?) and mocks her to the point of tears. Boldly, he approaches her later that same day, asking her to take him shopping, to buy him things he needs for his trip. Bridget knows he’s being nice because he needs things—she’s seen this before—and fully expects William to act like a monster as soon as he has his booty.

The story takes a twist when William, post-shopping, does not act like a monster, but instead, begins to act like he’s not going to see Bridget for some time. Bridget transitions from glad-he’s-leaving to my-baby! pretty quickly, and Fordon does a more-than-adequate job of chronicling this, making us feel what Bridget feels, sending us on that emotional roller coaster without resorting to maudlin devices.

Kelly Fordon is so good at telling real stories about real people, regulars folks who face irregular situations. Because she’s so skilled at characterizing her protagonists, it’s easy to empathize with their trauma, to see myself in their shoes. I Have the Answer isn’t alway a true statement here—in fact, it almost never is—but it does make for a good book, one I’m glad I spent time with today.