October 16, 2020: “Hallelujah Station” by M. Randal O’Wain

Friday already, Story366?

This evening, the oldest boy and I set out on a Scout camping trip, the last overnighter for the year. Unfortunately, the weather has turned just a bit, getting down to the sixties during the day, the forties during the night. I look forward to these camping trips, especially when my decks are cleared and I can head out of town with a clear conscience. My only real hang up today is the cold.

Now, forties at night isn’t all that cold, and normally, I wouldn’t even think about it. But in the woods, in a tent, sleeping on the earth, it can get downright chilly. We do sport a couple of low-temp sleeping bags, and overall, once inside, we can get toasty. The bags are the mummy type, where you’re supposed to zip yourself inside like you’re in a sarcophagus, your arms folded over your chest (anks are optional), only a bit of your face exposed so you can breathe. This is all fine and good, but I traditionally can’t sleep like that, my arms just lying there. I need one arm under my pillow and head, the other arm gripping something in front of me, be it another pillow or the Karen. Since Karen isn’t going, I’ll need another pillow, which is easy enough.

That doesn’t put my arms, head, or shoulders in the mummy bag, though, meaning a big chunk of me freezes. I can usually get everything into a perfect configuration where I’m mostly okay, but then if I move, even twitch, it all comes undone.

Let’s not even go into how the cold makes me have to go to the bathroom every couple of hours.

This is a lot of whining, I realize. I probably need to invest in better equipment, or simply suck it up (or sneak off to my car, which other parents certainly do). I take it as a good sign, however, that this is my main obstacle to sleeping in the Ozark wilderness in a tent, on the ground, overnight. Most people I know wouldn’t even consider this type of primitive camping—my brother just sent me a lead on a camper, telling me I should invest in that if I’m going to do this so often. That sounds kind of neat, but campers aren’t allowed in Scouts. Gotta sleep in a tent. Gotta sleep on the ground. Weird rule, but they’re teaching the boys to be self-sufficient, how to camp with things they can carry.

In any case, I’m looking forward to one more weekend out in nature before winter comes. I’ll fill you in when I get back.

Today I read from M. Randal O’Wain‘s debut story collection, Hallelujah Station, out this year from Autumn House. This is my initial foray into O’Wain’s writing, which is always awesome. Let’s talk about what it is that O’Wain does.

The book opens with a longish story, “Salvation,” about a meth cook and dealer who lives on a nineteenth-century casino boat in a Memphis port (now, not in the nineteenth century). The port is owned by Hazel and is home to fifteen or so unsavory types who rent from Hazel and drink Pabst at his bar. Everyone’s life is changed when a young boy falls into their lap, a kid named Lee whom everyone gives clothes and food to, kind of adopts. Eventually, we find out Lee was working for a dealer named Big, a guy running a bunch of young boys for various illicit things. Sad Man, as our protagonist is named by Lee, works with Hazel to get Big put away, especially after Big beats Lee soundly, scarring his face for life. Sad Man settles into a good stretch, then, sponsoring Lee’s love of art—he’s got a rep as a tagger—and using Big’s other boys to run his shit. But he’s kind and generous, as cooks/dealers go. Big gets out after four years, however, and comes looking for his boys, and his taste, leading Ghost Man and Hazel to make a decision that will solve their problem, but perhaps lose Lee in the process.

“Heads Down” is about a hapless crook named Darrel whose wife leaves him for the Coca-Cola deliver guy she knows from the diner where she works. Another disgruntled guy, Roger, who was fired from said diner, recruits Darrel to be his lookout/getaway man for a robbery. Roger wants to knock off the diner, in the middle of a busy shift, as he thinks he knows the routine and safe combination. Darrel agrees, but is distracted by the fact the Coke deliver guy is in his wife’s section and they’re making kissy-face. The robbery goes awry, in just about every way, and Darrel must decide just how much of a criminal he wants to be.

The title story, “Hallelujah Station,” is about a young girl whose mom drops a radio in the bathtub while giving her a bath. She wakes up, an undetermined amount of time later, after being in a coma. She has no movements, but is now aware of her surroundings and has conscious thoughts. She’s in an asylum somewhere and has no idea where her family is, how long she’s been there, or what her diagnosis is.

She does acquire an imaginary friend, the Girl, who sort of keeps her company, though the Girl can’t talk, either. One thing that gets her through her days is the radio signal that’s coming in through an old filling. Our hero can change the station through minimal movements in her jaw. She prefers the weather, but the Girl likes old music—Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra-type stuff—and they have little arguments about what to listen to.

Her situation changes when a janitor named Manny starts to clean her room—they have her stowed up in the attic so her radio noise doesn’t bother anyone—and begins talking to her. Manny is kind, but is soon fired for general incompetence. Manny, unwilling to let his new friend languish in the asylum attic, hides overnight in the closet, then steals our girl away, taking her to his farmhouse out in the sticks, left to him by his deceased Meemaw.

Manny starts off taking pretty good care of here, compared to how she was treated at the facility—the nurses called her “Cucumber” because of her vegetative status. Before long, though, Manny realizes she’s not been bathed and is starting to stink. He tries to give her a bath, but in the process of lifting her wet body from the tub, drops her. She smacks her face on the lip of the tub, which knocks out her filling. All of a sudden, the one saving grace of her life, her radio, is no more.

The story doesn’t quite end there, but I won’t reveal that here. I’ll say that this story goes along with the other pieces I read in the collection, in that M. Randal O’Wain’s hapless characters seems to make bad situations worse, even if their intentions are noble, or at least vaguely innocent. That makes Hallelujah Station a really entertaining book, meeting these characters, becoming invested in their seedy worlds, then seeing them define what it is to genuinely screw up. This book is a lot of fun, but is gritty and sad at the same time. I foresee this being on my year-end top list when that time comes.

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