September 15, 2020: “Richard: You’re in the Wrong Place” by Joseph Harris

How goes it, Story366?

News just came in that my son’s high school’s football team is under quarantine for the next two weeks. They are shutting things down. For my son, that means no marching band this Friday, as there will be no game at which to perform.

Good for his school, cutting things off when it was time. The same can’t be said for LSU, defending national champions of the college world, who just reported today that 95 percent of their players have or have had COVID since June. 95 percent! The coach, Ed Orgeron, said this: “‘Hopefully that once you catch it, you don’t get it again,’ he said. ‘I’m not a doctor. I think they have that 90-day window, so most of the players that have caught it, we do feel like they’ll be eligible for games.'” He’s referring to a ninety-day loophole, where the NCAA has somehow made it a rule that if a player tests positive, he doesn’t have to get tested again for ninety days.

Coach Orgeron is taking full advantage of this, as he seems to be sticking to this protocol, whether his players are sick or not. Seems like Coach Orgeron is only concerned with whether or not his players are eligible to play, not if they should play. He seems pretty willy-nilly here with just how sick these young men have been, whether or not there have been any long-term effects, and most importantly, how these cases have affected their community—who else has gotten sick? How much has this spread across the university and Baton Rouge community? He doesn’t seem very concerned with that, just whether or not his guys will be ready to suit up. Here’s the article I got this from:

Maybe Ed Orgeron is being misquoted, or his quotes are taken out of context. Perhaps he went on to talk about that, about the long-term effects of the virus; note, the long-term effects are what the Big Ten was worried about when they postponed the season, not the disease, but how it’s screwing with young people in the afteryears. That’s not come up in this article, however, and I wonder if this college team—unlike our local high school team—is thinking straight. Seems like they’re worried about suiting up, about fielding a team, and defending that title.

Time will tell, but I’m pretty incensed that a college community could be struck with this many cases and for business to go on as usual. The fact that the teams don’t even have to report their numbers is terrifying. Come on, universities. We’re supposed to be the smart ones. Let’s act like it.

Today I read from Joseph Harris’ brand-new collection, You’re in the Wrong Place, out today from Wayne State University Press as part of their Made in Michigan Writers Series. We had the pleasure of publishing the title story, “You’re in the Wrong Place,” in Moon City Review just last year, so I’m more than happy to see Harris’ whole collection come to light. Let’s investigate.

You’re in the Wrong Place is a collection of interrelated stories, each story following the life of a laid-off Dynamic Fabricating employee. Dynamic Fabricating was a fictional manufacturing plant in the Detroit suburb of Ferndale. It prospered as a manufacturer of auto parts, and when that went south, stayed open fulfilling defense contracts. Early on, we get the real-time revelation that the government has not renewed their contract, thus sending every employee into desperation. Also, the stories inside are all titled by the protagonists’ names, but are subtitled something else, the titles that Harris published them under in literary magazines. So, that’s the setup.

The first story in the book is “Jack,” subtitled “Would You Rather,” and here is where we go from fully operational Dynamic to shutdown. The story begins with Jack at a bar on Nine Mile, on his birthday, drinking it up with his fellow linemen. He gets super-drunk and wakes up on some off time with Jess, his fiancé, ready to head out of town for the weekend. The couple is young and in love and living the good life, staying in a cabin, going out to dinner, drinking a lot, and having loving sex. It’s a last dance, as it turns out, because when Jack gets home, there’s a message from his boss to come in on Monday. There the bad news is delivered, that there’s two to three months of work left, at best. As Jack’s career dissipates, so does his relationship with Jess—who also works at Dynamic, in an office—the stress of being broke and losing everything to much to bear.

Jumping to the end of the book, “Pete: Devil’s Night” skips to the next generation of the Dynamic fallout. It features Pete and some of his friends, high school kids whose fathers all lost their jobs at Dynamic, then promptly left town, left their families. Pete and his friends and their moms survive on minimum-wage jobs, wondering what their going to do for a living, if they’re ever going to escape the poverty and desolation of post-shutdown Detroit. An opportunity comes their way—on October 30, Devil’s Night—an older guy they kinda know offering a chance for mischief and cash. This isn’t the last story in the book—there’s a novella-length piece after—but it’s a fitting ending, too, as the opportunity is burning down a certain abandoned factory, torching it for someone who would benefit from its demise. It’s a symbolic way to end this narrative, at least penultimately.

The title story, or “Richard: You’re in the Wrong Place” officially, is about Richard, or Dick, another guy who’s lost his job when Dynamic shut down. He and some of his Dynamic coworkers have scored a transitional job—that’s a nice way of putting “real step down”—of mowing and weed-whacking local properties for the bank. These are the properties that have been foreclosed on, businesses and homes that have not endured the shutdown. They are the homes of their coworkers, the ones not lucky enough to score this landscaping gig. They are keeping the properties nice for resale, so they’re literally adding salt to the womb, betraying their own in exchange for their own survival.

By the way, the title comes from a game the guys play, or at least a catchphrase they like to repeat. It comes from a factory they need to maintain, a sign on the door that says, “If you’re looking for work, you’re in the wrong place.” From that moment on, whenever someone wants something, be it a relationship, quiet, empathy, whathaveyou, one of the guys employs it. “If you’re looking for solidarity, you’re in the wrong place.” “If you’re looking for love, you’re in the wrong place.” Etcetera. Like it would in real life, the joke goes through a cycle, from funny, to old, to cruel, to funny again, them parodying themselves, for irony, by the end of the story.

Harris makes the most out of the guys’ relationship, showing them at work and at play; all of these characters, in all of these stories, hit the local watering hole after work, or after not-work, indulging in vices despite having no resources to do so. Everyone drinks. Everyone smokes. Everyone smokes pot. They buy and scratch lottery tickets. What used to be after-work indulgence probably becomes their slow doom, if they don’t go broke first.

Richard and his crew eventually run into a house owned by someone they’re way too close to, that confrontation the climax of the story. It’s followed by a quick resolution, which in this situation, isn’t much of a resolution. This situation doesn’t get better, if you aren’t up on Detroit economics, as these factories don’t ever get going again, all these people don’t get their jobs back, and all the relationships that are rendered as a result are unlikely to be resolved.

Joseph Harris’ collection You’re in the Wrong Place debuts today and introduces a talented new voice to the book world. His stories are effectively real and heart-rending, one after another, Harris chronicling a sad, ongoing chapter of Americana. The fact he’s able to make something fresh out of each one of these tales—every character facing the exact same dilemma—is a testament to his talent. Congratulations, Joseph, on your book birthday!

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