October 14, 2020: “Heartland Calamitous” by Michael Credico

How you feeling today, Story366?

A little baseball talk for today, as the playoffs push onward, without the Cubs, but they will crown a champion nonetheless. If you follow baseball, or maybe even if you don’t, you know the Astros were exposed this past off-season for a major cheating scandal. This involved a somewhat complicated system for stealing pitches, then a simple system for relaying that info to the hitter: banging on a garbage can once (for fastballs) or twice (for breaking balls). This scheme was exposed and denounced, but a year or so after the Astros won the World Series, and yes, there’s evidence that they executed this shit during the World Series. Nobody in baseball, save Astros and Astros fans, likes this team. Before COVID ended spring training, the Astros were seeing a lot of high and tight fastballs, and that continued into the regular season. Yet, despite this—and losing their top three pitchers this year—they made it to the ALCS, where they’re down three games to none and can get eliminated tonight.

So, most people are happy the Astros are likely toast. One contributing factor to their demise this series is Jose Altuve. Altuve is a former MVP and part of that World Series team. He’s also one of the main culprits of the sign-stealing debacle. And he has the yips.

What are the yips, you might ask? The yips happen when a player can no long throw a ball correctly, forcing errors, and sometimes, losses. Altuve’s had five throwing errors in the postseason so far—after none in the regular season—and yesterday’s gaff probably cost his team the game. There’s a short list of famous cases of the yips, guys like Steve Sax, Chuck Knoblach, and Rick Ankiel come to mind, and all of them eventually sought psychological help (after, I’m sure, a million drills). The same is being prescribed for Altuve now, implying this is all in his head, not due to some mechanical flaw.

Because of his role in the cheating and so forth, I don’t feel bad for Altuve. Maybe it’s karma, or maybe it’s random. In either case, I got to thinking about the yips, how it would apply to my world, to my job. Maybe writer’s block isn’t writer’s block; maybe it’s the yips, a psychological inability to write a sentence or create a plot segue. Maybe a bad streak of rejections isn’t poor writing or poor timing, but the yips. And maybe I miss something in a lecture, forget to post an assignment on Blackboard, or misinterpret a student story, and that’s the yips, not me doing a shitty job.

I could come up with equivalents for other aspects of my life, mainly husbandry and parenting, but I think you get the idea. My point is, it’s interesting that a very specific thing like what I describe above for baseball gets to be a psychological disorder, have a name, and for people express sympathy. To act like it’s something other than simply fucking up. I’d love to go to my boss, my boys, or the Karen and say, “Sorry, must be the yips” and for them to take it seriously, get me some help. It’s almost like a mulligan that you can use more than once. In any case, here’s to one more day of yips for Jose Altuve. He can have all off-season to work them out, see a shrink, and bang on garbage cans. Go Rays.

Today I read from Michael Credico‘s debut collection, Heartland Calamitous, out early this year from Autumn House Press. Credico’s work has been published in a lot of journals, and I’ve read some of it in SmokeLong Quarterly. It’s good to get a whole collection, though, to see what he does over and over. Let’s discuss.

There are a lot of shorts, as mentioned, and I read most of them in the book. Some highlights include the opener, “Western,” about an Indiana cowboy who experiences a surreal car accident. I also like what’s next up, “Sister,” about a guy who’s sister is a sheep-woman who become a burlesque performer. Perhaps a companion piece to “Western,” “Baby” also finds a baby in a predicament with the same gruesome and strange results. “My Mother Took to Keeping Tigers” is about another kind of tragedy, what happens when you keep tigers in your yard, then let them loose to roam the neighborhood. “The Man With a Fish in His Heart” is just a wonderful mess of ideas and interiority and anxiety that I’d need too long to explain in this type of paragraph.

A longer story, “Killing Square,” is about a guy who works in an abattoir and has for a while, slaughtering animals down on the killing square (the actual point of the animal’s death), the worst job in the factory. A new employee comes to the square and is way better at killing than our guy, but that’s okay, because our guy is finally promoted inside (into the office) after too many years. There he discovers that it’s perhaps less gruesome to be slitting cows’ necks than it is to work behind a desk, at least in this particular establishment.

The title story, “Heartland Calamitous,” is another glorious mess of a story, and here, it seems like Credico throws all this tools and themes into one kitchen sink and then launches it straight at us. This one’s about a guy who comes home to find his house burned down and his wife, Tallulah, gone. He assumes his wife has been abducted by some dastardly muchacho (Credico’s word for the villain). Our hero acquires a horse, which turns out to be too tall for him, so he takes the last remnant of his house, the bathtub, and puts it in the river. From there, the horse (on the shore) drags him west, in search of his love.

So, it’s an offbeat road story, and our hero certainly runs into his share of adventures on the way. His first encounter sees a fish hook stuck in his mouth, and in an attempt to remove it, he runs into an old man in a rocking chair with a gray beard, kind of a stand-in for God or a god-like character. We also get the first appearance of a running joke—or is it?—where everyone he meets assumes he’s dead.

Our guy next runs into a cowboy and a woman named Clem. They get to drinking and talking about Montana—very cowboy things—and before long, the cowboy steals his horse and he’s left with Clem. This is a good thing, and he and Clem take a liking to each other. They try to make love out among some steers, the cowboy watching, but that doesn’t work, our guy thinking too much about Tallulah.

Have I mentioned the cannibalism yet? Another motif here is people eating each other—they’re heading west, remember, and people have been known to do that on those types of journeys.

Eventually our guy finds a town that’s mostly abandoned, save the saloon, where he does more drinking, runs into another old feller, but doesn’t find Tallulah. This is where the cannibalism really hits its stride, but I won’t go on, as, well, what else do you need to know after I say, “this is where the cannibalism really hits its stride.”

I think I used the word “offbeat” earlier, and that’s one way to describe what Michael Credico does in Heartland Calamitous. A more accurate way of looking at them is “unique,” as Credico’s voice is unlike anything I’ve quite read before, a mixture of surrealism, despair, frustration, and comedy that adds up to a pretty marvelous whole. There are cowboys and cannibals, dead babies and fish with wings. What else does a book really need?