October 31, 2020: “A Death” by Stephen King

Happy Halloween, Story366!

Today we decide on what exactly Halloween 2020 is going to be. We have costumes, trick-or-treating is legal, and our kids—especially the youngest—is looking forward to it. But do we do it? I think we’re going to, with some restrictions. We’d rather not take any candy from anyone’s hands. We’re not going to go to crowded neighborhood, get stuck in a group. We’re not going to let our kids dig into their jack-o’-lanterns on the way. We’re going to store their candy, in said lanterns, for a couple of days, just in case. We’re not going to be out very long. We’re going to wear masks, and not just the adorable or horrifying kind that go with the costumes.

It almost sounds like this won’t be very much fun, this COVID-unit version of tricks and treats. But really, we’re think this is reasonable. COVID cases are up in Springfield, alarmingly so, and what better way to contract the virus than to knock on every door, asking people to touch food before handing it over to us to eat? It’s cold outside, our kids have limited a attention span, and they possess little or no ambition for serious candy collection (if I were a kid nowadays, in this town, I’d … probably weigh fifty pounds more than I do). So, we’ll have limited fun, pick up something for dinner, then come home and eat the candy we bought in the store. Sounds like 2020 to me.

Today is Halloween and I’ve had Stephen King‘s The Bazaar of Bad Dreams (Scribner, 2015) in hand for a while, waiting for today. I actually went to find this book four years ago, stopping in a suburban St. Louis Barnes & Noble on my way back from Chicago (from World Series Game 5, to be exact). That store didn’t have any King story collections, and I settled on Neil Gaimen instead. This year, I got a jump on it, making sure I could cover him here today (and in general, as I never have at Story366 before). I’ve liked everything I’ve read by King—which isn’t a lot, compared to most readers—so I was looking forward to reading this book today.

“Batman and Robin Have an Altercation” is about Dougie Sanderson, whose dad, Pop, is in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s. Dougie takes his dad out to Applebee’s once a week or so, where the two talk and have a good meal. Sometimes Pop knows who Dougie, is, and sometimes he doesn’t, often thinking he’s Dougie’s dead brother, Reggie, who was killed in a fist fight fifty years earlier. On the way home one night, a big pickup truck cuts them off at an intersection, causing a wreck. Dougie makes the mistake of flipping the other driver off, a big dude with his sleeves torn off his shirt and lots of tattoos. This guy doesn’t take kindly to the gesture, or his truck being totaled, and takes it out on Dougie, who insists on exchanging info. Lo and behold, the other guy doesn’t have insurance and wants nothing to do with the police, so he starts to beat on Dougie, at least until he’s rescued by an unlikely champion.

“The Dune” is about Judge Harvey Beecher, a ninety-year-old retiree who sets out to update his will. He visits his lawyer, Anthony Wayland, who wants to know what the hurry is, why Beecher is needing this done today. Beecher tells him a story, reminding him that this is under lawyer-client confidentiality, the story of a small island that’s been in his family his entire life. The island sports a small beach dune, and on that dune, the judge has, since he was a boy, found the names of people edged into the sand. Not coincidentally, the person whose name he finds in the sand ends up dead within a few day, without fail. Wayland, believing the judge by the end of the story, assumes the judge has seen his own name in the sand, but the judge corrects him, implying there’s another reason Wayland needs to do this job today.

Today I’ll focus on “A Death,” set in Kansas just before it became a state (1861). The story starts with Jim Trusdale sitting on the porch outside his shack, set on his senile father’s ranch, next to a cold stove. A posse, led by Sheriff Barclay, approaches, launching the story.

Barclay questions Trusdale about his hat, which seems to be important, and Trusdale doesn’t know where it is. Despite this, Barclay arrests him, telling him a ten-year-old girl, Rebecca Cline, has been murdered, and they believe he did it. The posse loads Trusdale onto the back of the hearse (which was a big wagon, back then), and takes him back into town.

Once there, it’s clear everyone, include the Clines, want blood. A trial is thrown together, though there aren’t any real lawyers to defend Trusdale, so the store owner, who spent a couple of years in school in a big city, gets the job. The mayor becomes both the judge and prosecutor. Everyone wants Trusdale to hang, but Barclay wants to make sure they go through due process, statehood looming, and also because he’s a decent man.

Trusdale never admits to killing Rebecca Cline. The only evidence the town has against him is his hat, which was found under Rebecca’s petticoat when they discovered her body in an alley. Trusdale was in town that day, oo, drinking at the bar, but otherwise, there’s no evidence.

He’s found guilty, anyway, but along the way, Barclay starts to believe him. He has nothing to lose and the sheriff knows they have no real evidence, so it weighs on him when the verdict is rendered, all the way through Trusdale’s hanging. Because King knows what he’s doing, there’s more to the story than this, but I won’t reveal that here.

I liked all three of the stories I read from this book, Stephen King’s eye for detail and focus on characters overwhelming any sense of horror or dread that I might have been expecting. I’m sure I’ll read the rest of The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, as these are great stories from one of the masters, stories good for any day of the year.

October 30, 2020: “Weary Bones” by Sonora Taylor

Hey her hello there, Story366!

Today our family took our yearly sojourn to Party City to pick out our kids’ Halloween costumes. We went pretty early, comparatively, as we got there before noon on October 30—we’ve been there on Halloween afternoon before, which is kind of a bloodbath. Party City has a gazillion costumes and accessories, laid out brilliantly on a wall, each costume pictured with an accompanying number. That number is given to an associate, which is then relayed to someone in the stock room, and boom, your costumes show up on a table thirty seconds later. They’ve Ray Krocasized costume purchasing, so the whole process is smooth and easy, even at this point in the game.

Again this year, we were a little disappointed to be resorting to Party City. The kids don’t mind—they get the costumes they want—and since this is a particularly hard part of the year in a very hard year, it’s so much easier. But as creative people, the Karen and I always have designs on big ideas. We’ll be driving along in June or July and someone we’ll say, Hey, why don’t we go as _______ for Halloween this year! And then we plan it out, talk about how we can make it happen, especially with stuff we already have around our house. The ideas sometimes include the four of us in some kind of theme—we’ve been the Justice League before, as well as Star Wars characters—and sometimes the kids just want to do their own thing. But those plans, come the middle of a semester, rarely seem to formulate. We suddenly can’t find the materials. The kids change their minds. Most often, we just don’t have the time and it’s too late before we get our act together. So, Party City.

Regardless, the real Halloween fun is trick or treating, getting out and seeing everyone in their costumes, and of course, the candy haul. I’ll write more about that tomorrow, on the actual day, so stay tuned.

I wanted to do a Halloween-themed book this year (I covered a freaky story by Neil Gaman back in 2016), just because there are some of those out there. I actually found two. One I’ll save for tomorrow, but for today, let’s talk about Little Paranoias, Sonora Taylor‘s 2019 self-published collection. Taylor has amassed a good following with her books, especially as a horror writer, which is what drew me to her here today.

Little Paranoias is a collection of Taylor’s stories, short-shorts, and the occasional poem. I read a couple of the longer stories, including “Weary Bones.” This one’s about a future reality (Olivia Benon’s great-granddaughter is the main detective on Law & Order: SVU) where a serum has been invented, a serum that will bring people back from the dead for a second life. Sounds like a miracle of science.

There’s a catch: When the people die, they don’t come back like they used to be. Instead, they come back as skeletons. So, this world, post-serum, is filled with skeletons, people’s dead relatives walking around, recognizing their loved ones, but unable to do much in the way of communication besides the occasional gesture. They can move about, they can nod, they can shrug. But it’s certainly not much of an existence.

Taylor writes a nice paragraph describing what happens to a regular human body when it dies, if that person has ingested this serum. The skin and organs and blood just seem to melt, in a gory, disgusting manner, as if someone had taken a blowtorch and pointed it until there was nothing left but white bone. The skeleton then gets up and … is a skeleton.

Taylor follows several characters throughout the story, including a lab worker who has to tend to the test rats during the serum’s inception. We get a few other people who encounter these skeletons, which is how Taylor lets us know that the serum is a failure, how nobody seems happy with the results (the FDA must have disbanded at this point). Eventually, people stop taking it, but it’ll be a while before it’s grandfathered out, until everyone who’s infused dies and moves on.

The person we follow somewhat consistently is Brandon, who at the start of all this is a kid when his grandfather dies. He watches that scene where his grandfather melts away, which horrifies his parents. Afterward, however, Brandon kind of likes hanging around with skeleton grandpa, who sits and watches TV with him, alive just enough to be a companion, almost like a creepy pet.

More people are like Brandon’s parents, though, unsettled by these skeletons traipsing around the house. Eventually, special cemeteries are set up where people can move their skeleton family members, fenced-in areas where the skeletons just kind of hang out. They wave at people when they walk by, seemingly cheerful, but all they do is exist in this half-cemetery-like place.

When Brandon’s in high school, he walks by one of these cemeteries and sees a help wanted sign. Considering the bond he’s had with his grandfather, how ununsettled he is by the mostly dead, he signs on. Before long, skeleton caretaker becomes Brandon’s full-time job, perhaps even his obsession. When a coworker seems interested in him romantically, asks him on a date, Brandon declines, opting to stay in the cemetery—even during his off hours—with the dead.

Taylor has the instinct to bring this all to a hilt, but I won’t reveal that here. I enjoyed reading “Weary Bones,” creative and fun, but also touching on some serious emotional territory as well.

Another longer story, “Quadrapocalypse,” is set in DC amidst some torrential downpours. We start the story with Morgan, on the tube, her train caught in that part of the ride directly under the Potomac, surrounded by enough concrete—she hopes—to keep the water at bay. From there, Taylor cuts the narrative into fourths, each covering a different quadrant—Northeast, Southwest, etc.—of the DC grid. For each quadrant, we get a different plague coming down to wipe everyone out, be it rat-infused water that’s so acidic, it melts whatever it touches, or creeping vines that crawl from the ground and strangle all in its wake. Eventually we get back to Morgan and her traveling companions, who are stuck in the middle of it all, the entire train receiving the entire world-ending buffet in a horrific fit of glory.

Taylor includes a lot of flashes here, too, stories that are eclectic in their theme and intent. “A Part of You” is about twin boys who murder their mother, only to see her revenge come upon them, gruesomely and quickly. “Crust” is about a woman’s obsession with her mother’s pie recipe, one that drives her past distraction. “Snowfall” is about a girl who’s walking alone through a forest at night and … well, you can guess where that goes.

Sonora Taylor has a vivid imagination and a macabre sense of the world, which made Little Paranoias fun to read, especially with pumpkins and candles and things that go bump in the night afoot. I don’t read a lot of horror, but Story366 offers such opportunities, part of what makes it so rewarding.

October 29, 2020: “How to Make Love to a Physicist” by Deesha Philyaw

Good to see you, Story366!

Okay, let the distractions commence: The Mandalorian Season 2 starts tomorrow on Disney+ and I can’t wait. This has been a tough year, made tough by so many things. A lot has been taken from us, including loved ones, as well as time with our loved ones. But 2020 has also taken the little things we enjoy, such as two MCU movies already, Black Widow and The Eternals, pushed back until next year, and for a dork like me, that’s torture.

It’s exhilarating, in a nerd way, to see The Mandalorian come back. Not only do I enjoy it, but it’s one of the few things that me and my family watch together. We’ve seen each episode five times, if not more, and I’m watching last season’s finale as I type this. I’m wondering if it’ll start streaming at midnight, because if it is, I might try to talk the fam into staying up, watching it as soon as it hits (if the Internet doesn’t break). If not, it’s going to be an early wakeup, as I’m getting anxious. This is some of the best Star Wars material that’s come around in decades (save Rogue One, which is awesome), so if you haven’t partaken, do. You’ll love it.

Today’s post led me to Deesah Philyaw‘s collection, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, out this year from West Virginia University Press. This book is already up for this year’s National Book Award in fiction, yet I haven’t read anything by Philyaw before today. I love Story366 so much for getting these books into my hands and the stories into my brain, especially when the book is as good as this one is.

“Eula” is the opening story and is about Caroletta, spending her fortieth New Year’s Eve—1999—in a nice hotel with her lifelong best friend and sometimes-lover, Eula. The two spend a casual and loving evening together, and in the meantime, Caroletta reminisces about the history of their relationship. The two, having always been friends, used to dream of marrying good men, getting jobs together teaching at their high school, buying houses next to each other, and being friends forever. This is thrown awry when the two fooled around one night, ten years earlier, setting Caroletta on a different path. Eula, however, has basically thought that their interactions haven’t counted—she even considers herself a virgin—and still wants that childhood dream to come true. This night in the hotel, Dick Clark counting down the millennium and Y2K lurking, Caroletta finally confronts Eula, hopeful as the ball drops.

“Not-Daniel” is about a woman whose mother is in hospice, who meets a dashing man whose mother happens to be in hospice right across the hall. The two, having spent day and night at their mothers’ bedsides, sneak off to the garage for a backseat rendezvous, dodging the stern ward nurse, wondering if their phones will buzz with the news as they’re lost in their escape.

“How to Make Love to a Physicist” is the story I’m focusing on today. This one’s about a woman who attends a national education conference and meets the idea man, Eric. She’s a junior high art teacher and he’s an administrator of a national physics program. The two have dinner, then talk in the lobby until two in the morning. From there, they eat every meal together, spend all their free time together—but not overnights—then part ways, their homes on opposite sides of the country.

Eric pursues, however, texting her multiple times a day. It’s a long while before our hero responds, wondering where this long-distance possibility might go. When Eric sends her a fancy book about stars, she calls to thank him. From there, the two are inseparable—as much as they can be, not living in the same part of the country.

Our hero has a way to get Eric near her, a reason that’s work-related, an exhibit, including some of her own work, that’s also got a tie-in to science. Eric agrees to come, and the wait begins.

I don’t want to reveal what happens at this reunion, but I will say that this story is refreshing in the fact it’s so positive. The only real conflict in this piece is time, but anyone who’s been away from the person they love, time is more than enough.

I enjoyed The Secret Lives of Church Ladies as much as any book I’ve read this year, Deesha Philyaw presenting a memorable debut, one that’s already gained quite a few accolades. These stories—about black, spiritual women entering into unknown and somewhat forbidden territories—are touching, sexy, funny, and meaningful, introducing another vital new voice, one that’s integral, timely, and beaming with talent.

October 28, 2020: “Copernicus” by Gilbert Sorrentino

A good Wednesday to you, Story366!

Baseball season is officially over, as the Dodgers won the World Series last night. They were the best team all year and have won their division eight straight years now, so they were due to be the last teams standing. They’re also not an easily hatable team, despite their payroll, as they are mostly home-grown, with a few key trades, like Mookie Betts, and a couple of genius free agents acquisitions, Max Muncy and Justin Turner, guys no one else wanted. So, good for them. Good for Clayton Kershaw, who’s gotten the playoff monkey off his back, and good for Vin Scully, who’s the best ever at what he did and is probably happy right now.

Speaking of Justin Turner, his name is the one on everyone’s lips today, despite him not performing all that well in this Series. If you haven’t heard this by now, here’s the scoop: Turner took a COVID test some time before the game, and in the sixth inning, that test came back as positive. Under MLB orders, the Dodgers immediately pulled him from the game and sent him into quarantine. It was unfortunate, but the right thing to do, even at that stage of the game—of the season—with just three innings to go.

Only, it didn’t end there. The Dodgers won the World Series, piled up on each other in the middle of the diamond, celebrating. Think what you want about guys who have been working together for four months now doing that kind of thing, some with masks and some not. The real hitch is that Turner, whom just tested positive, came out on the field and celebrated with his teammates. He didn’t wear a mask. He hoisted the World Series trophy. He took the team picture. He interacted with dozens of Dodger, MLB, and media personnel.

I get it, that he’s spent four years with this team, through all its ups and downs, and has been a crucial part of what they’ve done. I get this might be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to have this experience with these guys. But really, he couldn’t have done better? At least have worn his mask? Not touch anyone? DNot hold the trophy, then pass it around?

No one knows today how this will turn out. Could be, nobody gets sick and everyone laughs at this conjecture, says he did what anyone would have done. Or other people might get sick. Players had their kids on the field, their infant babies in their arms. There are many elderly people involved, including umpires and league officials and probably behind-the-scenes people, too. I really hope I’m wrong to wag a finger at this guy, call him selfish and say he’s a bad person. But right now, when everyone should be celebrating in Dodgerdom, everyone’s talking about this guy, and as a result, COVID-19, and as a result, politics. It’s a bad mix, but it’s six days until Election Day, 2020. How fitting.

Today I picked up a book at a bookstore, a book I’m not even sure is a collection of stories. But I’m deep into this project now, and a book like this, Lunar Follies (Coffee House, 2005) by the late Gilbert Sorrentino (1929-2006), feels like a necessary departure. I’m pretty sure this is fiction, and the pieces are short, so I think I’m not breaking any self-imposed rules here. It just doesn’t say “short stories” anywhere on the book (nor does it say “novel” or “essays” or “nonfiction” for that matter), so I wanted to make sure I’m doing something fictional. (Note: Coffee House’s book page calls it a novel, but it’s at the very least a novel-in-stories, so I’m good). Sorrentino is the author of thirty or so books, but I have to admit, I didn’t know him or his work before picking this up today. In any case, when you write 366 reviews in a row, it’s okay to slip in something different, to take a chance on a project like this, not to mention familiarize myself with a writer’s work.

This book seems to be made up of “reviews,” which is a term I found in a blurb on the back cover, little reports on various artists, galleries, and other art-related themes. The pieces are mostly a page or two long—with some exceptions—and they’re alphabetized.

Otherwise, the stories, or chapters, or reviews, all employ an elevated voice, mimicking, it seems, an informed and poetic—if not somewhat snotty—art critic. The pieces are all a mix of history, description, and flowery language, written to not only promote (or scorn) a particular exhibit or piece or artist, but to entertain the general art criticism reader—if that reader also liked to read poetry and had an endless personal library of highbrow references.

If you know me at all personally, you know why I plucked “Copernicus” out of the long list of stories to write about. “Copernicus,” like most pieces in this book, doesn’t make exact reference to its title, to what that title implies; there is no mention of Nicholas Copernicus, heliocentricity, or astronomy in general. Instead, Sorrentino embarks on his own type of narrative, using the title as more of a … placeholder? … to discuss something or another, something that’s, honestly, pretty hard to decipher. Every sentence in this story, and all the others, are filled with impromptu-feeling references, from European history, to golden-age cinema, to world politics. There’s enough random references in this story to make James Joyce blush (the book’s epigraph is from Finnegan’s Wake, by the way), to give the Norton Anthology footnote people a hard-on.

Because this story is longer, one of the longest in the book, there’s eventually a sense of a narrative, as we follow local New Jersey rubes, Paul and Virginia, frequenters of an arcade, as they play a real-life RPG, sending them on quests, making them solve riddles. The art-critic voice seems to be mocking them—Paul and Virginia aren’t really the protagonists, after all, but observations and topics of discussion—as they fumble about Sorrentino’s vast encyclopedia of vague and unrelated references. I liked reading it, however, because the piece’s length allowed me to get into a rhythm. At the very least, this story reads pretty, and the occasional reference that I could pick up on, without Googling it, grounded me at times, such as the three photos of Lauren Bacall in the arcade, each featuring her in a different costume. What does it mean or what purpose does this reference serve? I’m not sure, but I’ve been thinking about Lauren Bacall since, and that’s the power of writing, of this writing.

Other story titles in the book include references to things I know nothing about, but there’s also “Archimedes,” “Jules Verne,” all the Seas on the moon, and Pythagorus. Collectively, they add up to something.

Lunar Follies seems like an experiment by an author who had seen a lot of success in the mainstream. Gilbert Sorrentino gives us hope with this book, as it demonstrates what a writer can do, especially if they have the pull given to them by awards and sales and prestige. It’s a miracle that a project like this can exist, there for us to enjoy, an odd collection of Sorrentino’s musings, gorgeous if not misleading, a persisting achievement for someone who had accomplished so much already.

October 27, 2020: “The Great Barrier Reef Is Dying But So Are We” by Leesa Cross-Smith

A rainy Tuesday for you, Story366!

One week to go until the election. Not sure what else I can say about that at this point, as I’ve said a lot, spread out over the past ten months. If you’re reading this, I’m sure you’ve been following the news, too not to mention the world. It seems surreal, in some ways, that there’s just a week to go, that seven days from now, I’ll have voted and then all I can do is sit back and hope the process is true. And quick. I don’t think we’ll have a presidential decision by the time we usually do—election night—but I’m sure if it’s close, both parties will claim victory. Whatever happens a week from now, I have a feeling that this will stretch out until January 20, when someone has their inauguration ceremony. I’m hoping it’s quicker and easier—i.e., Trump gets smeared and has to step down without a fight—but does anyone really think that’s going to happen?

I’ll use this space to say it one more time: Vote. I’m announcing this to everyone, even people who will vote against my candidates. The country is better when more people are involved, more people having a say. Even if you think your candidate is a shoo-in or you think they have no chance, go vote. For one, there’s more than just the presidency at stake—lots of state and local elections, including all those issues and measures, will be on the ballot, and you need to chime in on those. My nephew lives in Indiana and told me he’s not going to bother voting because he knows Trump will win easily. He’s probably right about that, but when I reminded him of everything else on the ticket, he basically told me he’s not political and isn’t going to stand in line all day to vote for people he knows nothing about. This is instrumental of how this happens, how so few people vote, why we have people in power who have been chosen by the minority instead of the majority.

So do whatever you can, starting today, to make sure you can vote. For some reason, Election Day is not a national holiday—will the next president please change that?—and many of you have to work. Even if you don’t, there’ll be tremendous lines at many polls. Be ready for whatever you have to face. Just make sure you get there, you wait it out, and your ballot counts. It’s why we here in America are better than other countries, the fascists and the communists and those true monarchies. We have this right, fought wars for it, so let’s use it.

Go America!

Today I read from Leesa Cross-Smith‘s excellent 2020 collection, So We Can Glow, out earlier this year from Grand Central Publishing. Cross-Smith’s stories have been everywhere and I’ve read some of them before, but I’m so happy to see this collection out and in my hands, as it’s freaking amazing.

So We Can Glow has a lot of stories in it, forty-six to be exact, a mix of short-shorts and mid-range stories, nothing really that long. Cross-Smith excels at any length, really, be it a more poetic short-form style or a longer, more narrative endeavor. The opening story, “We Moons,” is just gorgeous, one long paragraph that seems to trace and emblemize the entire suffrage, women’s lib, and Me, Too movements, all in one beautifully crafted and detail-filled short.

The next story, “The Great Barrier Reef Is Dying But So Are We,” is one of the longer pieces in the book, and is today’s focus. This one’s about Minnie, a cellist in a quartet, who’s married to Adam, an actor on the side who also teaches AP History. The story begins with the couple driving home from one of Adam’s performances, one in which he has to kiss his costar, Caitriona, really make out with her. Minnie is pouting, jealous from watching this moment, sore because twenty years earlier, Adam and Caitriona dated. Adam wants to go out to eat, but Minnie wants to fight, and they do, passing all the restaurants.

Minnie doesn’t let this jealousy go, not even when they get home, still nagging on the subject. Adam turns it around on her and asks about Connor, another member of her quartet. Adam’s not seriously thinking Minnie is having an affair, but it’s the kind of thing that comes out in fights, a finger pointed to deflect a pointed finger. Adam flips on a baseball game on TV (he’s a Cubs fan by the way … and their daughter’s name is Ivy!) and Minnie goes into the basement to practice a piece for a forthcoming wedding.

Playing doesn’t make Minnie any less mad about Caitriona. She decides to text Connor and ask he if wants to live-stream a practice. He responds Fuck yes! The two get to talking and it’s clear that they have a close relationship, nicknames and in-jokes. In fact, Adam’s impulsive accusation turns out to be dead-on, as Minnie did sleep with Connor, a few months earlier, on an out-of-town gig, the other half of the quartet passed out drunk across the hall.

Minnie actually brings up her jealousy to Connor, who reacts in the least-preferable way that Minnie could have hoped for: He’s logical. Connor points out that Adam is probably not having an affair, reminding Minnie that she indeed did. Minnie’s fears are only exasperated, into hysterics. Of course, it’s evident to the reader that Minnie has become quite unreliable, but even when this truth is out in the open and Minnie feels regret over her actions with Connor, she still can’t let go of her jealousy of Caitriona.

“The Great Barrier Reef Is Dying but So Are We” is a really good story, showing what Cross-Smith can do in a longer form, how she can delve deep into a character. Another longer story, “Winona Forever,” tracks two teenaged girls, both super-huge Winona Ryder fans, as they navigate some dark times. The narrator is lifelong best friends with Crystal, who has big deerlike brown Winona eyes, certainly part of Crystal’s appeal. Crystal’s sister, Amber, had those eyes, too, but has died recently, her boyfriend drunk-driving them off a bridge. The girls—our narrator and Crystal—deal with their grief by watching every Winona movie over and over, locked up in Crystal’s room. They also run into a couple of guys who think they’re pretty. It’s not long before these boys invite them over, and the girls find another distraction to cope with Amber’s death. In the end, though, it’s Crystal our narrator loves, be it for Crystal being Crystal, or her standing in for the star they both admire.

I read a bunch of the shorts (ranging from one to four pages) in So We Can Glow, too, and all of them have a presence, a grace, and prove great reads, especially one after another. Some highlights include “Unknown Legend,” “Low, Small,” “A Tennis Court,” and the semi-titular entry, “Knock Out the Heart Lights So We Can Glow.” Cross-Smith explores a wide variety of styles and themes in these pieces—one of the great pluses with shorts—and if she wasn’t so damn good at more traditionally lengthed stories, I’d say shorts were her thing.

I’m so glad to have obtained a copy of So We Can Glow for this project, Leesa Cross-Smith’s debut collection of stories. I loved every piece I read here, stories about real people in real-life conflicts, but conflicts that Cross-Smith portrays with such charm, and splendor, and ease. I want to finish this book, take in every last character, every last word. This is definitely going to be in the running for Best of 2020.

October 26, 2020: “Misadventure” by Nicholas Grider

Here comes another Monday, Story366!

Yesterday I wrote about the Karen‘s return from a weeklong writing retreat in Tennessee, how much me and the boys were looking forward to her coming home. We got the house super-clean, did a grocery run, and then made one of her favorite meals, enchiladas. Right as everything was finishing up, she walked in the door, to everyone’s delight (and relief). After some light but enthusiastic hugging, she sat right down and we had dinner, almost as if she’d never been gone. Along with her, a calmness has returned, the proper state of things, our stars in alignment. Onward toward our next thing … Halloween!

Today I read from Nicholas Grider‘s 2014 collection, Misadventure, out from A Strange Object. I’ve read a story or two by Grider in the past, but it’s always good to get a whole collection in hand. So, without ado, let’s do it.

Misadventure is cut up into two sections, Section One and Section Two, but first, there’s a precursor story, “Millions of Americans Are Strange.” This is a stream-of-consciousness-style story, one long paragraph stretching six pages. Basically, this piece lists Americans, by random first name, and explains in a sentence or two what they do. Grider then moves on to the next person, who’s doing the next thing, and then the next, and so on. One motif that stands out is people being tied up by other people, in chairs and to beds and the like, usually by choice, by request. The term “Millions of Americans” repeats throughout, too, setting a particular tone and cadence, while also implying a general statement about the characters involved.

“Disappearing Act” begins Section One and is about several men working at an advertising firm. The story begins with a statement, the narrator claiming that the story is “… everything I know and most of what I suspect,” making the story an affidavit of sorts, a monologued testimony. The disappearing act occurs when a guy named John, who had gotten close to another guy, this one named Aiden, suddenly disappears. Our narrator takes us through his relationship with John, as he would in a police interview, but also relays a lot of speculation that he gets second-hand from a guy named Stewart. Stewart seems to know a lot about John and Aiden and John’s disappearance. The narrator proposes a lot of conjecture, too, calling bullshit on Stewart, adding his own speculations into the mix.

The title story, “Misadventure,” starts off Section Two. This one has a similar testimony-style delivery and begins, again, with a statement like “Disappearing Act” does, a disclaimer from the narrator pronouncing what the text that follows really is, how it’s honest but also not an admission of anything. With a statement like this to lead things off, we can only think of how not true the statements are and how incredibly unreliable these speakers must be.

Martin is our narrator this time. After that disclaimer, we get a short litany of italicized questions, directed at Martin, asking him to explain his role in a tragic incident at a barbecue; the pattern repeats, more italicized questions coming once Martin has answered one batch. We also get a few markers after the questions, August, September, and March, which place the story on a timeline.

As for the subject of the testimony, five guys—Martin, Bob, Andrew, Adam, and Vincent—are getting drunk outside by a pool. Somehow, once they’re all inebriated, the notion of this Navy SEALs test comes up, a test where a bound SEAL has to dive into deep water, his hands and feet tied (more tying up …), and retrieve a heavy object from the bottom. Bob, who brags over and over that he was a champion swimmer at Indiana State, insists he can do this, and the five drunk guys find the rope and the object—a pair of goggles—for Bob to fetch from the pool’s bottom.

As you might guess, things don’t turn out well for Bob. Part of it is because what he’s attempting is really hard, even for a Navy SEAL, even for a champion Sycamore swimmer. Part is because he and everyone else is drunk. And part is because the other four guys, who were supposed to be spotting Bob while he makes his dive, get distracted by some fireworks, ooh and ah for a while, then turn around to find Bob floating at the top of the water.

This gets us through the first set of questions, through August. A month later, tragedy strikes again when Andrew hangs himself in his bathroom. Andrew had taken a lot of the blame for Bob’s death—unlike Martin—ending his life in grief.

A lot of the rest of this story deals with the aftermath, which somewhat pathetically resorts to finger-pointing and self-soothing, 40 percent of this merry band suddenly gone. It’s interesting to see Martin squirm a bit, but also fun to watch him convince himself that he had little or no part in what happened to both of his friends, when truly, he’s as much at fault as anyone.

Nicholar Grider writes interesting stories about men relating to other men in Misadventure. Along with his themes and plots, he also employs a particular style, lots of declarative sentences, lots of well honed prose, and a particular honesty, all which make these feel fresh and nuanced, but rewarding all the same. This is an interesting book from an interesting voice, and I very much enjoyed reading these stories, learning Grider’s unique take on fiction.

October 25, 2020: “We Love Anderson Cooper” by R.L. Maizes

Sunday is here, Story366!

The Karen is on her way back from her weeklong retreat in Tennessee, just a few hours from home. Before she left, I dreaded her absence, partly because I wouldn’t get to see her, partly because I’d be shouldering the week alone. I knew she’d be doing her thing, taking some much needed her-time. I also knew that all the appointments, all the rides, all the homework, all the questions, all the everything, would fall under my column. Considering everything that encompasses, plus my job, plus the COVID nonsense, it was a tall order.

I think I pulled it off, however (knock on wood). Before she left, I’d hoped to take care of some major household task, do something like paint our bathroom, reorganize our basement, or clean the gutters. Nothing like that formulated, and really, it wasn’t even close. I liken those goals to that first day of summer break, when I think I’m going to write seven books, lose fifty pounds, and accomplish every other life goal I’ve ever had because I have three months off. None of those things have ever happened, and our bathroom is still all naked drywall and peeling wallpaper as I type this.

Still, the boys and I got our stuff done. We Scouted. We cleaned up. We finished their first academic quarter with relatively good grades, considering. We’re healthy. The cats are coming together. I feel rested.

No matter what happened here this last week, I’m glad to have Karen coming home. I can’t wait, really, just a few-four hours until she pulls up. I can take just about anything in this world, any task, any trial, any setback, but with her here, it’s always a million times easier, a million times better. Then it’ll be Monday, and together, we’ll take on the next thing.

Yesterday I finished a Two-Timers Week here at Story366, so today I was back to new authors (or at least those I haven’t covered yet). I start back with R.L. Maize‘s collection, We Love Anderson Cooper, out from Celadon Books in 2019. I’ve not read Maizes’ work before, despite some steady journal publications, so going in, I was eager to see what she does. Let’s talk about that.

The title story leads us off and it’s about Markus, this kid about to have his Bar Mitzvah, but at the same time, ready to come out to his parents. He has a boyfriend, a kid from Hebrew School named Gavin. Gavin’s not out yet, either, and wants to keep it that way, but Markus has other plans.

Markus tries to tell his parents, who seem accepting, but he never gets it out. In the meantime, he’s memorizing passages from Leviticus, the book with the anti-gay verse that all the anti-gay Christians like to quote. Markus has to read this in front of the congregation as he become a man, but doesn’t want to. His mother, still unaware, says to say it and not mean it, to think the opposite in his heart.

Markus decides he’s going to come out at his Bar Mitzvah, while up on the pulpit, instead of reading his speech and reciting his verses. Markus recalls a kid who came out during his valedictorian speech, a kid who later became famous, interviewed all over TV, his speech a hit on YouTube. Markus starts to picture the fame he’ll receive, but at the same time, Gavin still wants no part of this, not ready, his parents not the liberals that Markus’ are. The boys agree that if Markus goes through with his plan, he’ll leave Gavin out of it.

The Bar Mitzvah scene, in the middle of the story, is awkward and tense, but Markus spits it out, comes out … but outs Gavin, too. The ceremony turns into chaos, the rabbi wanting him to leave, the congregation cheering Markus on, and Gavin bolting before Markus can talk to him.

From there, Markus has to deal with the aftereffects of his actions. He has his Bar Mitzvah party, anyway—no refunds on the hall, DJ, or food—but Gavin doesn’t come. He and Gavin don’t talk for a couple of days, and when they do, Gavin’s still sore. The boys have their first real sexual encounter, too, but it’s sooner than Markus hoped it would be, him relenting to Gavin’s pressures simply because he feels he owes his boyfriend.

At the same time, Markus gets some of that fame he craved, kids at school suddenly thinking he’s cool. A reporter calls for a TV interview. People who had never talked to him before are suddenly inviting him to sit with them at lunch, to come over for parties.

I don’t want to go any further into this piece, as I need to leave something for you to discover. It’s a tense and moving story, though, this kid really caught up on the whirlwind of his life, of his choices, including the ones he makes and the ones he doesn’t make.

“Collections” is about Maya, a retired woman whose lover, Peter, has died from cancer, who is suddenly finding herself in an undesirable state, on top of her general grief. Maya had worked for Peter as his caretaker and cook before the two fell together as lovers. She then moved in, from her meager apartment, and lived the life of a wealthy woman, Peter quite well off. When Peter got sick, she nursed him until death, only to find out she wasn’t in his will and his daughters did not know of her relationship with their father. Maya is suddenly back at her rundown apartment, no money, no job, no way to make a living. She trades the fancy adjustable bed she took from Peter’s house (while his daughters were en route) for some work on her apartment, which is how she meets Alberto, the handsome handyman. Alberto offers her a job as his collections agent, and this is how Maya finds out that so many of Alberto’s clients haven’t paid him because he slept with their wives or daughters. When Alberto starts courting Maya, she had to decide what it is she wants, and more importantly, how she wants to live.

The last story, “Ghost Dogs,” features Paula. When we first meet Paula, we see her life is falling apart. Maizes slowly reveals what happened to Paula to get her into this funk phase. We see that her realty law practice has all but gone under, her home office a disaster that even the housekeeper won’t touch. Her husband, Roger, has been recovering from cancer. We find out her two beloved dogs, Tanner and Pedal have recently passed, but not how.Because of all this, their relationship is strained. Eventually, we find out the backstory, that those dogs died, at just five or six years old, when Paula was out on errands. She picked up Roger’s chemo drugs, then ran into a client’s office to pick up some papers, only to come out and find the dogs had eaten Roger’s deadly meds. The dogs soon die, and things between her and her husband, and her and herself, are never quite the same for Paula.

I enjoyed the time I spent with We Love Anderson Cooper, R.L. Maizes’ fine debut collection. Maizes already has another book out this year, a novel named Other People’s Pets, so things seem to be coming together for this talented author. I like the impossibility of the life situations she places her characters into, even enjoying the pain they endure as they attempt to navigate. These are important-feeling, high-stakes stories, and Maizes seems right at home, bringing them our way.

October 24, 2020: “She” by Michelle Latiolais

Greetings, Story366!

This morning, I spent four hours in front of a local Ace Hardware store with my boys, selling popcorn for my oldest’s Scout troop. He’s saving money up for that weeklong island adventure in the Keys next July, and selling popcorn is a good way to earn some extra cash. Scout popcorn is kind of a scam, if you choose to look at it that way, as a bag of cheese popcorn or carmel corn or whatever costs twenty bucks. The good thing about it is 73 percent of that money goes to local Scouting, and 29 percent goes to my son’s troop. Even better, my troop gives all of that 29 percent to the Scout selling that corn. This means my son gets 29 percent of everything he sells, and so far, that’s about fifty bucks.

The trip to the Keys will cost him around two grand, and because I’m a Scout leader and I want to have this experience with him, we’re doubling that two grand. Half is paid and the other half is pretty much accounted for (yay, fall semester overload), but every dollar counts.

What am I getting at? If you’d like to purchase some popcorn or make a donation, here’s the link that will hook you up to my son’s account:

All-Trail’s Popcorn Account for Story366, Jr.

My son has gotten a lot out of Scouting, so if you’re interested in helping him and his District out, here’s your chance.

Today I finish up a Two-Timers Week at Story366, where I cover an author for a second time, with a different book. I’ve enjoyed this week a great deal, seeing what these authors do with a different project. Sometimes it’s more of the same I found in the first book, sometimes it’s a completely different project. Today’s Two-Timer is certainly doing something new. Michelle Latiolais‘ latest, She (Norton, 2016), is a novel-in-stories (dubbed “Fiction” on the cover and inside), and is very different from the book I read this past April, Widow. I’ve liked reading from both books, so let’s talk She now.

As noted, She is a novel-in-stories, following the (mis)adventures of a fifteen-year-old girl who has run away from home, landing in Santa Monica. The girl is only named “she” throughout, when referred to by that pronoun in general throughout the prose. She even avoids giving her name—so she can’t be traced and returned to her parents—when someone asks. I read the first several stories/chapters of the book, every other one named “She,” alternating with random titles. The “She” chapters focus on our runaway, while the other chapters focus on other characters in LA, people that She will presumably run into at some point in the overall story arc.

The first chapter is a “She” chapter and starts with our girl on a bus, already having run away. A sheriff boards the bus, looking for our runaway, but the driver and everyone on board keeps mum, the girl hiding on the ground, wondering when she’ll be caught. No one turns her in, unified, for whatever reason, against the fuzz.

Before we know it, She’s in LA, wondering what to do next, where to go. She has almost no money and only a few random things she threw into her little pink backpack before taking off. She decides to hail a cab, see where it takes her, and settles on Santa Monica, as it’s a saint’s name, and a woman saint at that, which she thinks sound less threatening. She doesn’t have money for a cab, thinking she’ll just bail when She gets there, but the cabbie won’t let her in without money. A strange man happens upon her and says he’s going to Santa Monica, too, and She takes a chance, getting into the cab with this stranger.

This is the first time that a woman in this book trusts a strange man, what seems to be a motif. She, and we, wonder if the guy is up to no good, bad intentions about to come down on her. Instead, he just makes light talk. She’s still nervous enough to get out on a whim, on a random corner, the man and the cabbie both looking worried, wondering what will happen to this obvious new runaway. The man even decides (we slip into others’ points of views occasionally) not to watch the news for a few days, not wanting to see reports of her demise.

From there, She starts displaying some survival skills. She wanders into an art gallery and offers to fix the hem on a woman’s dress. The woman, the gallery owner, agrees, noting a tear in the seam, and ascertains, too, She is a runaway. She gives her a five for fixing the hem—one thing our girl brought with her was her sewing kit—and invites her to come back for an opening later on. The girl departs, not knowing what an opening is.

This pretty much ends that first story—which might be a chapter—but the premise is well established, as is this girl and her situation. We know She’s desperate—She’s escaped abuse, but her situation hasn’t improved all that much—but She’s resourceful, too. More on her soon.

“Gas” is a short interlude falling next and again features a woman trusting a strange man. This woman is an adult and is at an LA gas station, pumping gas, when a man at the next pump starts talking her up. At first, he just seems friendly, but soon becomes desperate, as if he’s breaking down, and asks the woman to meet him at the coffee shop across the street. The woman assesses the man, the danger, and comes to the conclusion that meeting this poor man in public, a man who is well dressed with a car of his own, isn’t dangerous. The drive across the street and park, but their date is soon interrupted and the two leave the café almost as soon as they enter. I’m thinking these characters will appear again later, because that’s what books do.

The next “She” chapter pits our girl in the situation of finding a place to sleep, her first night away from home. She wonders the streets of Santa Monica until She finds a house with a garage, a garage She could hide in at least one night. Cutting through the yard, a man inside the house confronts her, asking if she’s Olivia, his niece. She, a quick thinker, says She’s Olivia’s friend and is supposed to meet her there. The man lets her inside (the third time in three stories a vulnerable woman has trusted a strange man), but he’s no dummy, soon figuring out the girl is not only not Olivia’s friend, but She’s a runaway and needs something to eat and a place to sleep. The two have some soup, chat a bit, and the man, Julien Stoke, asks her her name, which she doesn’t give him. She figures out some things of his own, like how his partner, a Mr. Horvath, has just died and he’s dealing with that. The chapter ends with a silent-type invitation for the girl to stay, to live with Julien and help him out with chores and general care (he’s pretty old). The chapter ends with her thinking it’s a nice offer, but that She probably can’t stay.

Admittedly, She seems more novel than collection of stories, but hey, once I got into this, I wanted to go further (plus didn’t have time to go find another book for today). Michelle Latiolais has fashioned an intriguing situation and a strong protagonist. I made it through a third of the book and I definitely want to finish, wanting to find out where this is going, where she will land, and see how much of her past is going to catch up with her. I enjoyed my time with this book today, and look forward to rounding it out soon.

October 23, 2020: “Break It Down” by Lydia Davis

Friday Friday Friday, Story366!

Last night, I held the fourth in the series of Moon City Press‘s Fall 2020 Virtual Reading Series. Pablo Piñero Stillmann rocked the house, and I had a good time chatting with him, in a live Q&A, afterwards. As I type this, I’m listening in on a 7.13 Books panel, another live Zoom event. And you know what? I think I really like these live virtual events. Really, I would never attend a panel like the one I’m in now, with all of these people, unless maybe I was at AWP. The audience for Pablo’s reading would have been very local if it were live in Springfield (as originally planned), which is great, but my students all had to/have to go, anyway, and now they can check the event out later, at their leisure, instead of rearranging their lives to be in a room, on campus, at a weird time on a week night. Sure, I don’t get to hang out with the authors—dinner, chats, carousing—but we get a lot in return. People from all over show up to these virtual events, people like me at the 7.13 event. People can watch them later. We can share all around social media. Virtual events are pretty neat.

I’m not saying that I’ll never want to go back to live readings, bringing writers to campus, when this coronavirus nonsense is finally over. Having live events, readings or whatnot, is part of university life. That type of reading series, however, is pretty expensive, including airline tickets, hotel rooms, and meals, not to mention drinks. We’re still paying an honorarium for the Zoom webinars, but not nearly as much as we would pay for a live reading—it’s much easier for someone to put ninety minutes aside for a Zoom event than it is forty-eight hours or more for a trip to Missouri. I suspect we’ll go back to having live readers, for sure, but will we have as many?

What I can see happening is blending the reading series between on-campus readers and these virtual events. I can even picture having a weekly or maybe biweekly virtual series, just doing readings, panels, and discussions on top of the live events. It’s pretty easy to do for me, just ninety minutes of time out of my day, as opposed to arranging a visit and hosting someone for a couple of days. I wonder, with how much success we’ve had: Why wouldn’t I do that?

I continue today with a Two-Timers Week at Story366, where I cover an author for a second time, with a different book. Today’s Two-Timer is Lydia Davis for her book Break It Down, out in 2008 from Picador. Davis is a luminary figure in short stories, the author of several books, including Can’t and Won’t, which I covered here in August of 2016. Great to visit Davis’ work again. Let’s go.

When I did that first post on Davis back in 2016, I tried to be all clever by making my post a short one, as Can’t and Won’t is made up primarily of shorts, what some people would describe as flash; some of the stories are a mere sentence in length. I made the case that in the spirit of her book and form preference, I should write a short post as well. That’s all fine and good, but it also might have been that I was busy that day, or just got lazy (typical me). So, that entry is like two hundred words long, by far the shortest I’ve ever posted.

I’m not going to pull a stunt like that today, but instead, cover the book more normal-like (for me, anyway). That’s not easy, because Davis is a writer unlike any other, her style completely her own, no real comparison for me to make, other than people who have come in her wake and imitated her.

The title story, “Break It Down,” chronicles the thoughts of this guy who just took a vacation with a special ladyfriend, a trip that included lots of sex. The trip has left him invigorated, an overall successful venture.

The guy’s no romantic, however, as he declares the trip cost him a thousand dollars, including travel, hotel, and expenses—it’s like he’s his own accountant when he remembers the trip. This is where he starts to break it down, first figuring that the trip cost him a a hundred bucks a day. He then counts how many times they had sex, and figures that it cost him about sixty dollars per coital encounter. An interesting way of looking at a vacation, let alone a relationship, but hey, this is our character, the premise of this story.

From there, Davis really breaks down this trip, as the guy starts to consider, believe it or not, elements of the time other than the actual sex. He thinks about cuddling. He thinks about conversation. He thinks of other instances of intimacy, all of it becoming incalculable.

Eventually, the guy considers how the woman has haunted him, how he can’t get her out of his head, when he’s awake or asleep. If he counts those moments—and he does—it becomes impossible to break down the cost per minute or event or orgasm. It’s a running count, too, as he can’t stop thinking about her. He longs for her. So, he’s no romantic—no way to overcome that dollar-per-fuck opener—but he softens a little, makes a change in the right direction.

That’s a rundown of the title story, in terms of theme and plot, but Davis’ writing is about so much more. It’s her style that she’s known for, her long sentences, exacting prose, and stream-of-conscious approach to narration. I read a lot of stories in this book and don’t remember dialogue or scene in any of them. Mostly, Davis just sets a character, in third or first person, on a thought, then lets them rip until they get where they’re going. That sort of makes these monologues, but really, they’re characters studies, in versey prose, these people’s psyches unraveling as they get further into their journeys.

There are a lot of highlights in the book aside from the solid title piece. “Story” leads things off and is about a woman’s obsession with a lover, a lover who she can’t be with, mostly because he’s with one of his former lovers instead.

“The Brother-in-Law” features a family that includes a brother-in-law, but nobody knows to whom he’s attached, what makes him a brother-in-law and not a total stranger.

“What She Knew” is a one-page flash, a piece that’s identity-play and wordplay at the same time.

“Visit to Her Husband” is about a woman who visits her ex, only to find herself distracted by him during the visit—neither are comfortable—and shut down when he explains he’s bought an expensive pair of shoes for his new girlfriend. Our hero finds herself distracted again after, making her visit a mistake.

“Safe Love” is another flash, just a few sentences, about a woman secretly in love with her son’s pediatrician and the safety of unobtainable relationships.

“What an Older Woman Will Wear” poises a woman, sitting on a bench with her friend, looking forward to some of the advantages of old age, including not giving two craps about what other people think of her clothes or looks or libido. She pontificates on other aspects of senior citizenship as well, some of them advantages and others disadvantages.

I could go on and on, as there are a lot of stories in Break It Down, some of them stretching to ten pages or slightly more, some just a few sentences forming prose poems. All of Lydia Davis’ pieces in this book follow the thoughts and considerations of her characters into impossibly fun and complex wormholes, and I love every story for its craft, sense of the world, and pure creativity. I could read Davis’ stories forever, and lucky for me, there are so many more out there.

October 22, 2020: “Future Missionaries of America” by Matthew Vollmer

Happy Thursday to you, Story366!

Tonight Moon City Press hosted a FB Live Zoom Webinar event with Pablo Piñero Stillmann, author of Our Brains and the Brains of Miniature Sharks. It was a fantastic reading and I had a ball talking with Pablo after, feeding him questions from the audience at home. It’s probably been my favorite part of this semester, this back-and-forth with these authors. If you’d like to check out the reading with Pablo, or any of our virtual readings, here’s the link to the Moon City video archive:


Worth checking out, for sure!

Today I continue on with my Two-Timers Week here at Story366, when I cover an author for a second time, for a different book. The writer I’m making a Two-Timer today is Matthew Vollmer, with his debut collection, Future Missionaries of America, out in 2008 from MacAdam Cage. Vollmer’s first entry here was for his follow-up collection, Gateway to Paradise, covered back in October of 2016. I very much enjoyed reading from this first book of his today, and am pleased to be featuring him here once again.

The opening story is called “Oh Land of National Paradise, How Glorious Are Thy Bounties” and is about Harper, a young dude working as a waiter at a hotel inside Yosemite. Harper has just found out his best pal, Wes, has died from injuries related to being hit by a car. Harper is heartbroken, but he’s also kind of torn, because he’s been sleeping with Wes’ girl, Abby. Full of turmoil and angst and young-man sperm, he runs off from the hotel, his bowtie lost in the breeze, toward the worker dormitories. There he encounters Abby in her room, and what follows is a frenzy of emotion, the two relaying that grief into something else.

“Freebleeders” features Kevin, another college-aged dude with an overactive libido. Kevin is working at a lab where they do tests on freebleeders, or hemophiliac animals. It’s a shit job, but Kevin makes it clear that he doesn’t really like animals, so he can tolerate it. At the same time, a girl he met at a party a while back, Michelle, contacts him and lets him know that she’s broken up with her boyfriend, that she looks forward to visiting him when she gets back from Spain, where she’s studying Spanish and hanging out with European professional basketball players. Michelle is Kevin’s dream girl, way out of his league, but Michelle seems into him, especially when she makes good on her promise and shows up at Kevin’s door. The two have an intimate few days, and even though Michelle acts oddly at times, Kevin is smitten. So much so, he sinks his rent money into everything the spendthrift Michelle wants, including an expensive dinner and a golden retriever puppy. When Michelle leaves a couple of days later, probably for good, Kevin is stuck with it all, including that job that suddenly doesn’t seem as tolerable.

The title story, “Future Missionaries of America,” shows up last and is also the longest story in the book. This one’s about Alex, a gothy teen who’s pals with a high school classmate, Dave Melashenko, whom she just calls Melashenko. Alex is a practical girl, a straight-shooter who has a long leash, her single mom too busy grading a million comp papers to pay attention to what’s she’s up to. Alex seems like one of those cool and confident girls I admired from afar when I was in high school, but was way to much of geek to ever actually approach. You know, like Karen—somewhere along the way, I got the balls, I guess.

Anyway, Alex starts her friendship with Melashenko in French by passing a note, mocking him for his super-Christian ways. She finds Melashenko to have a sense of a humor, to be a cool about her jibes. They start a relationship that involves writing letters back and forth to each other, long epistles that include lots of in jokes, but also reveal a lot about themselves—to each other and to us.

The story centers around that classic home-ec assignment, to take care of a baby doll like it’s a real baby. Alex and Melashenko are paired together, faux-parents to Beth, one of those high-tech robots that records stuff and cries when you neglect it. The story starts with Alex waiting for Melashenko to drop Beth off at a McDonald’s—it’s like they’re divorced, splitting time. Alex doesn’t admit this, but she’s chosen this spot so she can buy Melashenko a sundae, kind of even sorta call it a date; the more she denies it, the more her motivations become clear. Did I mention it’s Valentine’s Day?

One thing leads to another and Melashenko invites Alex over to his house for dinner. Alex accepts and finds that Melashenko is loaded (he’s super-preppy, so this is no surprise). His mom is a medical professor and his dad is a reverend. Melashenko’s Christianity is in full force at home, his parents super-positive, always giving ethical advice and quoting the Bible. Are they the Flanderses? Pretty much—Melashenko’s kid sister even plays a game called “Baby Moses.”.

The story really takes a turn when the sleet outside turns to a blizzard and Alex is forced to spend the night. Melashenko’s parents are more than happy to host this heathen for the night. They’re completely unaware of Alex’s intentions, which start out innocently enough. Because Vollmer knows what he’s doing, however, he forces the issue, and before long, Alex, Melashenko, and Beth are up on Melashenko’s bed, in the middle of the night, and things get intense. Some of this is due to Melashenko’s announcement that he’ll be spending the next year in Africa—this is where the missionary motif comes in—with a missionary pen pal that serves as Alex’s rival. But again, two teenagers in a bed, emotions flying, on Valentine’s Day? Only so many things can happen, but Vollmer treats us with a nice grab bag of those options.

Future Missionaries of America, Matthew Vollmer’s debut collection, seems to be about the lengths to which young people will go just to get their ya-yas off. Not too hard when you’re young; it would be easy to add “… and not much to lose” here, but that’s the point, I think: There’s no such thing as free love, each encounter coming with a consequence. Because these are such good stories, these consequences seem life-changing, even if they aren’t, but seeming is all that matters when you’re lost in the moment the way Vollmer loses you in his.