September 8, 2020: “Mannequin and Wife” by Jen Fawkes

Hello hello hello, Story366!

The older boy’s band practice was canceled tonight because of a severe thunderstorm warning (it didn’t end up raining at all). This gave us some extra time, a couple-few hours we weren’t planning on having as a family. Our instinct, normally, would have been to make dinner and chill out, or do work, and that would have been fine. Since we’ve been swimming—the boy and I are training for a seafaring Scout adventure next year—we rose to the occasion, hopped into our suits, and headed to the gym. It all happened in a matter of minutes. One second there’s us planning to force-feed food into the clarinet hole, five minute later, we’re all in the car, a bag of towels in tow, ready to do some laps.

I don’t want to exaggerate here, but this is some of the most uncharacteristic behavior we’ve ever exhibited. I don’t know how long this will last, but I just feel good now, having done the thing that’s hardest to do. Tomorrow is a big day for teaching and meetings, so I knew we wouldn’t make it until at least Thursday. As busy as we are, we won’t get many opportunities, so when the arise, we need to pounce. I hope I have a lot of swimming/gym reports for you for the rest of the year. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Today I had the tremendous pleasure of reading from Jen Fawkes‘ debut collection, Mannequin and Wife, out just last week from LSU Press as part of the Yellow Shoe Fiction Series. I love Fawkes’ work, having published some of it in Mid-American Review back in the day. I’ve also followed her career since, reading pieces when I see them in magazines, when they’re posted online. Sometimes a writer’s style just speaks to me, and Fawkes certainly falls under that category. This is a great debut—let’s take a look.

The first story is “Sometimes They Kill Each Other” and it’s a good one. It’s about a stenographer’s pool in an office situation where the four ladies in the pool are tight, even with Misty, the new girl. The story gets cool and weird when it’s announced (via a memo, of course) there’s a duel on Friday. It’s easy to think this is some kind of Friday office shenanigans like a paper clip fight or sector ball, but no, it’s a real duel. A senior exec has challenged a young up-and-comer for some sort of insulting behavior so they’re going to duel. On Friday, that senior exec wins, killing that young up-and-comer. The stenographers take it in stride—they’ve accepted this as a frequent occurrence—all except for Misty, who clearly had a crush on the recently deceased. Misty changes after this, which doesn’t sit well with the stenographer’s pool, who may have the right instinct, considering what Misty does next.

“We Can Learn From the Sawhorse” is a short, about kids naming and riding horses in their garage—wooden sawhorses put together by two-by-fours. It’s only a couple of pages long but packs a lot of story, a lot of punch, into so few words.

A neo-noir sendup, “Come Back, Rita,” features a gumshoe, Mickey, who’s investigating the disappearance of a rich man. The rich man’s wife, playing the femme fatale, clarifies the situation for Mickey. Turns out, the missing man, Frank, is likely Dr. Victor Frankenstein, and he’s not gone; he is, instead, chasing his escaped monster. Where’d the monster go? Tampa, of course, the city with the most lightning in America (explaining their hockey team’s mascot, to boot).

The title story is also pretty awesome, about a couple, Dan and Lila, who have just been robbed, giving Lila PTSD, forcing Dan home from work to take care of her. A few days later, Steve shows up in the street outside, dressed as a sailor. Steve is the mannequin from the title, and after a long standoff, arguing whether Steve is saluting them or flipping them off, they bundle in their housecoats and slippers and go out to fetch Steve and bring him inside.

The story, as you might guess, gets weird, a couple with a mannequin in the house. Really, anything that happens after this point is going to be pretty interesting, but Fawkes makes the most of it. Steve starts to make his way around the house, posed in all kinds of interesting positions, doing scandalous things, a good laugh for either Dan or Lila, whichever didn’t do the posing. Before long, however, Steve starts showing up in poses that neither of the humans will cop to having put him in. Hmm.

Steve is also sad because he’s lost his love. Lila finds that out—there’s a good anecdote behind that—and before long, Dan finds his beloved, Bess, in a department store window, an empty space next to her, obviously missing its Steve.

Dan goes home to tell Lila what he’s found, only to find Lila and Steve in the kind of pose that prompts Lila to say, “This isn’t what it looks like” without a shred of irony. Finding Bess seems like a secondary concern all of a sudden.

Eventually, the couple does pack up Steve to reunite him with Bess, and again, the story takes a jump, into something that maybe we could see coming—like I said, this is a premise that allows for pretty much anything—but is satisfying, is perfect, nonetheless. “Mannequin and Wife” is a magical story, yes, but also one about relationships, Lila and Dan’s, Steve and Bess’s, and Lila and Steve’s. Fawkes is able to give all of them resonance somehow, making this a fun, tragic, and memorable story.

I can’t say enough about Mannequin and Wife, Jen Fawkes’ debut collection. This is one of those books that just speaks to me, a book I’ll read cover to cover, again and again, stories I’ll share with my students for many semesters to come. The even awesomer news is that Jen’s second book, another collection, was just announced today, due next year, so I’ll have even more to read (and write about!). But I’m getting ahead of myself. Mannequin and Wife will undoubtedly be on my top list at the end of this year, so get yourself a copy. Congrats to you, Jen!

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