November 29, 2020: “Bosses of Light and Sound” by Nickalus Rupert

Happy Sunday to you, Story366!

Since I started this blog back in 2016, I’ve kept a long list of story collections that I constantly add to. After a large recent purchase, that list shrunk to as small as it had been in a while. The last thirty-three slots of the year are now spoken for. Yesterday, to help make this list as complete as I could, I put one last call out on social media for books and recommendations. I got a lot of recommendations, and even a few offers of books. By the end of the day, I found that I had exceeded the number of books I’ll need, so a couple will be not appear in 2020. I see this as a good thing, considering a week ago, I used the last book on my shelf and had to go out and buy a couple just to keep going.

After this year, I will go on hiatus for a while, put my energy into other things. I need to hit the gym in a more regular and serious way. I also have a story manuscript that’s about 70 percent finished. I need to sleep more. I’ll be going up for promotion next fall, too, to full professor. Finally, I need to get back to those books I’ve loved this year, books I swore I’d finish, but didn’t because I just didn’t have the time.

I may even read a novel.

After wrapping up a Two-Timers Week yesterday, I continue on for those last thirty-three entries of the year. Today I read from Nickalus Rupert‘s brand-new collection, Bosses of Light and Sound, out from Willow Springs Books as the winner of their most recent Spokane Prize for Short Fiction. I’ve read a story or two of Rupert’s in the past, namely a short he put in SmokeLong Quarterly a few years back. As always, I’m happy to to have an entire collection in hand, to see what this author really does.

The title story, “Bosses of Light and Sound,” is the lead story and a good one. This one’s about a unnamed woman who works at the local movie theater, in the projectionist’s booth. She’s not the focus of the story, however, as the narrative is about Kelli, her disdainful coworker, with whom she’s obsessed.

Actually, we don’t know of this narrator woman right away, as the story seems like it’s being told in third person, at least for a few pages, everything a description of Kelli and what she does. Rupert slips in a we then, and a page later, the first-person takes over, still focused of Kelli, though, in the peripheral sort of way. Obsessed much? That’s the gist here, this person recounting her days with Kelli, who’s never left our hero’s head.

Kelli is not just another projectionist, but an iconoclast. She thinks she’s not only supposed to press buttons, but participate in the film experience. She starts by cutting twenty-three minutes out of a Spielberg film, A.I., because she thinks it’s going on too long and keeps her at the theater too late at night. When nobody notices this, she gets bolder, putting images in movies that aren’t supposed to be there, e.g., Daniel Day Lewis into Finding Nemo. Surprisingly, nobody notices for quite some time, not even Tina, their slightly older and considerably more alcoholic manager. The women even come to the theater when not working, just to alter the reels.

Eventually, Tina figures it out and confronts Kelli and our narrator about the messed-up films. Tina is really after the narrator—could she be intimidated by the much more confident Kelli?—but Kelli stands up and takes the fall for her actions, resulting in both women being fired. And just like that, Kelli is out the narrator’s life, leaving her to tell this tale, so many years later.

“Spy Car” is probably my favorite story of those I read, about these two guys, Walt and André, who used to be best friends until Walt stole André’s wife, Rosella. That marriage didn’t last, either, and six months after, Walt meets André for lunch to apologize. He sees that André has bought a new car, a “spy car,” a mock-up of Bond’s car from Goldeneye. The car is clearly patched together from an old Plymouth, but does seem to have gadgets like a smokescreen and oil tracks, which André demonstrates in a crazy fury. The two decide to scope out Rosella’s house, just to see her with her new husband—her and André’s therapist, Maynard. Rosella discovers them watching her, but is glad to see them and goes with the two for a ride, where the trio hashes out what happened and why. Unfortunately for Walt, he finds one more Bond device in the car, the seat ejector, and ends the story by going for a ride.

The third story I read, I have to say, is pretty polarizing for me. It’s called “Aunt Job,” and on one hand, is a fun and creative story, and on the other, I wonder how this story got published. This one takes place in an alternate world, one where boys, on their fourteenth birthday, go through a coming-of-age ceremony of sorts, one that crosses them into manhood. The ceremony? An aunt from their mom’s side gives him a hand job. To make it even more weird, it’s done in front of the whole family, and often, it’s also recorded and/or livestreamed (though a screen blocks out the actual intimate details). The story might be commenting on bizarre customs and how they can stick around—think “The Lottery”—and/or it might be a metaphor for the strange and terrible mystery that is sex for a boy that age. It’s also well written and entertaining to see this kid fret over this weird custom, following him in the days leading up to his birthday. But, yeah, it’s a weird plotline to have to think about, and not weird in the way I usually like weird. Rupert even admits, via his characters, that if the situation was gender-reversed—an uncle servicing a young niece—we wouldn’t be having this conversation because that story wouldn’t exist. Do I recommend you read this to judge for yourself? Well, it never hurts to read anything, I believe, and I’ll leave it at that.

I do like what I’ve read in Nickalus Rupert’s debut collection, Bosses of Light and Sound. His stories read as well as any stories I’ve had this year. One kind of gives me the heebie jeebies, sure, but this is a good book, one that puts his obvious talents on display.

November 28, 2020: “I Hold a Wolf by the Ears” by Laura van den Berg

Greetings to you, Story366!

Today I conclude what will be the last Two-Timers Week at Story366, weeks where I cover authors for a second time, for a different book. I have all of my books lined up through the end of the year, and none of them are authors I’ve featured here before. I committed to five such weeks to this project the year, plus a few random entries in between. So, nearly forty authors have been featured twice on this blog so far. I’m glad that I did so, though a tiny part of me thinks those forty slots could have been used for new authors—there’s plenty of books I haven’t covered and won’t get to this year. Overall, I have zero regrets. I’ll keep doing Story366 after this year—though not daily, probably never again—but if I come across a book and it strikes me, I’ll feature it here. Plenty of days ahead of me, plenty of books left to read.

The concept of Two-Timers has led me to new books by some of my favorite story writers, including today’s author, Laura van den Berg. She and I both had books on Dzanc in its early days, and since, her career has been nothing short of meteoric. I covered her follow-up collection, The Isle of Youth, back in February of 2016; I was pleased to buy her newest, I Hold a Wolf by the Ears, out this year from FSG, at an indie bookstore today (on small-business Saturday, no less). I enjoyed reading from this book, as I’ve enjoyed all of van den Berg’s work to date.

The opening story is “Last Night” and is about a young woman who has been committed to an asylum after numerous suicide attempts. There she works through enough of her problems so that she’s okay enough to be released. On her last night, she and her roommates sweet-talk a guard into letting them out so they can take a walk. There, one of her roomies puts her head down on the tracks, possibly to kill herself (her roommates have been committed for the same reason that she had been), a train heading their way. van den Berg at times gets metafictional, the narrator aware of her storytellingness, sometimes questioning the facts of story, making us question them as well.

“Cult of Mary” is about another young woman who has traveled to Italy with her mother, on the trip of her lifetime. Since her mother has recently had a stroke and is not well enough to travel alone, our hero jumps aboard for the ride. They are part of a tour, a tour that leaves much to be desired, but still allows for an investigation into church politics, the nature of religion, and our narrator’s relationship with her mother.

My favorite story is the title story, “I Hold a Wold by the Ears,” again about an American woman traveling in Italy. The story begins with the woman, Margot, taxiing up a mountain to a remote, scenic village, where she’ll meet her sister, who bought the pair of tickets before her husband divorced her, leaving room for our protagonist. A free trip to Italy is a free trip to Italy, and Margot goes despite having very little money and a stack of credit card debt.

Sadly, as soon as Margot arrives in the village, Louise, her sister, calls and says she isn’t coming, that she’s still in Rome, and … the phone call abruptly ends there. Margot is horrified, first that she’s traveled all this way and is suddenly alone, then that she has very little money for expenses, and lastly, that her sister might be in some sort of trouble. She dials Louise constantly while on the trip, leaving messages, and eventually, turning to unlikely resources to find her sister.

Mostly, though, the story is centered on what Margot does with her time in this picturesque little town. She immediately meets Fillipo, the hotel front desk clear/concierge/manager, the only member of the staff who speaks English—or so he claims—making him her one and only contact. He asks to see her passport, saying he needs a copy of her picture, but when the copier doesn’t work, he stores it in an envelope and says he’ll give it back to her later, after he fixes the problem. Then the ATM eats her card, the last one with any funds available. This leaves Margot alone in a less-than-perfect hotel room, with no resources and no ability to leave.

Louise’s trip was doubling as a conference, and Margot attends the mixer, taking Louise’s name tag so she can get free food and drinks. She drinks too many wines, then is approached by a man in the lobby who has had too many himself. The man thinks Margot is Louise, then starts to kiss her, then proceeds to have sex with her, right there in the hotel lobby (though off to the side somewhere). Margot, who’d been purposely celibate for a while, poses as her sister, in her mind, for the event. It’s over really before it begins, and Margot shuffles back to the hotel, disappointed in her choices.

Margot has a series of run-ins and other adventures that complicate both her trip and her relationship with herself. She is worried about Louise, but can’t travel to look for her. She calls her ex-brother-in-law for help, though he doesn’t pick up. She also shares an interesting, horrible story about a man back in Minneapolis who plagued the city, randomly slapping women in the face and then running off, a serial incident that goes on six months before the man is caught. She later runs into the man from the conference again, this time both of them sober, and they have to reckon what they did, the man mistaking Margot for her sister and Margot letting him. Eventually, Margot has a confrontation with Filippo about her passport, which he’s stolen to trade for a marzipan lamb (which is another story altogether).

I like “I Hold a Wolf by the Ears,” the title story form the book of the same name, Laura van den Berg’s third collection of stories (adding to two novels). The characters here seem lost, depending on others to guide them home, only these others are even less up to the task than van den Berg’s heroes. These are innovative, gorgeous stories that see its characters work through their inner demons, allowing them to cope with the outer world for a little bit longer. This is another impressive offering from van den Berg, whose career has been the definition of impressive, with so much more to come.

November 27, 2020: “The Killer’s Dog” by Gary Fincke

Hello, Story366!

So, it’s Black Friday, meaning all the stores are crazy-busy with shoppers and they finally turn a profit for the year. I’m not sure in the time of coronavirus that this is happening, and it’s sad. I went to work at the Scout tree lot today, which is in the far corner of the mall parking lot, and got a good view of traffic going in and out. I don’t think anything was open at midnight (let alone yesterday), as my shift started at nine this morning and saw an employee opening the doors to Dillard’s at that time. There were a dozen people waiting outside, not in lawn chairs, not pushing each over, and not sprinting toward that price-slashed blouse or door-buster perfume. They politely and calmly walked inside and the employee shut the door and followed them in, not flattened to the sidewalk underneath their thunderous trampling.

This is Dillard’s, however, a high-end department department store like Macy’s or … Macy’s, and I’m not sure they have anything remotely resembling door-busters. I think those are reserved for places that sell electronics, people hoping to get that giant flatscreen for a couple hundred bucks. Since I’ve never been shopping on Black Friday, I don’t know what else people get. Are they all hoping for TVs, gaming systems, and phones? Or do they just grab anything?

I’ve always been skeptical of Black Friday, as I don’t really shop, don’t look for sales, and have never been interested in fighting crowds, lines, or traffic. But in 2020, when so much is hanging in the balance for these stores—the ones that are still open, anyway—I was rooting for them. The lot was busy today, as it always is on Black Friday, so I wasn’t watching all that closely. But by the time I left at two, the parking spaces were starting to fill up a little, and I had to actually wait for a good amount of pedestrians to clear out before getting out of the lot. Nobody’s getting rich today, but I was glad to see some traffic, citizens out buying things, these stores perhaps having a chance at staying open, surviving the year.

Of course, nobody wants too big of crowds, as there still is that coronavirus in the air, and crowds are a bad idea. Most people I met today were wearing masks—save just a couple of rebels, sharing their freedom with the world—and nobody I met got particularly close to me. So maybe this was the perfect storm today, busy but not crowded? Time will tell, but by then, I hope we’re sold out of Christmas trees and I’m not around to watch.

Today I’m revisiting a book I’ve read before, though only in ARC form, Gary Fincke‘s The Killer’s Dog, out in 2017 from Elixir Press as a winner of their Elixir Press Fiction Award. This is a book that I wrote a blurb for a few years back, but since I’m in a Two-Timers Week, I really wanted to feature Fincke—a writer I very much admire—here again. I first wrote about Fincke’s work at Story366 in January of 2016 when I read his book A Room of Rain. I’m more than happy to be reading from this newer book again here and to be sharing my thoughts about it with you.

“The Killer’s Dog” is about Frank Fawcett, a late-twenties guy who manages a McDonald’s and has no illusions that life is going to get any better for him. He lives with his girlfriend, Elise, who works the night shift, he the day, and sometimes they go a week at a time without seeing each other.

One day Frank’s sister shows up with a German shepherd, a dog that belongs to a friend of hers, Hutch. Hutch has been in the news all week because a missing couple was just found on his property, murdered and buried. Maureen, the sister, is taking care of the dog while Hutch is “away,” and Frank is more than quick to point out the job will likely be permanent. He’s been watching the stories about Hutch on the news and the police are investigating more disappearances and searching his property more thoroughly, as Hutch might be a serial killer. And Frank’s sister has his dog.

Frank becomes more and more obsessed with Hutch and his case, continually in the local and even national news. He even runs into Hutch’s girlfriend at a concert, who recognizes him from a barbecue that Frank attended the one time he met Hutch. The girlfriend insists that Hutch has a good enough lawyer to get him off for self-defense, though doesn’t ever say if she believes he’s innocent. Frank realizes that at the time he met Hutch, he’d already killed the couple, very recently, and probably had that on his mind as they chatted and posed for pictures together.

Maureen employs Franks to help with the dog, which Frank does reluctantly. The dog is trained, obeying every command as if in the military, a fact that both impresses and scares Frank. This doesn’t keep him from going to Hutch’s property, to check it out, seeing if there are any more unmarked graves scattered about the vast property. When he hears a dog bark in the distance, he high-tails it back to his car, assuming it’s the dog, sensing his presence and coming to rip out his throat.

Frank eventually finds a use for the dog, taking it on walks and having it obey commands, just to impress some women, so there’s that. Yet throughout the story, there’s this implied contrast between himself and Hutch, Hutch so large and powerful, confident, while Frank knows his limitations. It’s a fascinating idea for a story, knowing a killer, and Fincke executes it marvelously.

The first story in the book, “Where We Live Now,” features Ellen Stark, a woman who lives a few doors down from a church that experiences a shooting. A man walks in during a service and guns down his wife, then is tackled, but the whole incident has Ellen, but especially her neighbors, in an uproar and on alert. Ellen navigates through the reactions and overreactions to the murder, but is morbidly curious about the situation, about the shooter. It’s not unlike the title story in that vein, being obsessed with acts of violence, projecting them onto yourself, as Ellen can’t help herself from doing.

“Gettysburg” begins with a cannonball shooting through the wall of Harold’s kitchen and landing at his feet. His neighbor, Kincaid, comes inside to apologize, but Harold is furious. To make up for it, Kincaid gives Harold a Civil War reenactment uniform—Union blue—and says he can come to the next event and shoot him (a rebel regular). Harold’s wife talks him into going, and when he’s there, has a much different experience than he’d bargained for.

I’m glad I revisited The Killer’s Dog today and am featuring Gary Fincke here again. Fincke is a master storyteller, shaping his tales around his characters’ impressively developed personalities and voices. This is just the latest edition of his fine, compelling tales, and I hope it’s not too long before we get another.

November 26, 2020: “Fasten Your Meat Belts” by David James Keaton

Happy Thanksgiving, Story366!

Today the family and I had a fantastic Thanksgiving. I got up early to finish commenting on a couple of stories—I was so behind—and then bake and clean up the dining room. I got through all that, the jewel in that crown a pumpkin cheesecake, which was absolutely devine. The Karen did most of the rest of the cooking—I got the cranberry sauce out of the can, however—but put together a solid dining room table setting. Here’s a couple of shots of the table, then the same table, only complete with spread:

It’s good to keep in mind that we probably only had dinner here because we couldn’t travel, couldn’t see our family. That sucks donkey for sure, but I’m glad that we did the smart thing and every single one of my siblings did the same. I would have loved to see my mom and at least half of my siblings (you know who you are …), but I’m just as happy not getting violently ill and upending my life—if I would happen to survive—for at least another hurdle in this crazy time.

As soon as we started dinner, we asked the burning question of everyone at the table: What are you thankful for? Our kids said they are happy to have us, which made my year, and they also said they’re happy for that dinner (77 percent of which is in plastic containers in the fridge). I’m the one that jumped in with the I’m-glad-we-didn’t-get-Covid-yet answer, and everyone just nodded. Then we feasted.

So, stay safe out there. I think we’re on the back end of this. If you got through today doing the right thing, you can make it the rest of the time. Here’s to next year with the whole family instead.

Today I continue with a Two-Timers Week at Story366, weeks where I cover authors for a second time, for a different collection. Today my Two-Timer is David James Keaton, an old student of mine at BG (though I think he’s way older than me …), a writer I covered in February of 2016 for his first collection, Fish Bites Cop. Today I read from his latest book, Our Pool Party Bus Forever Days: Road Stories, out in 2018 from Red Room Press. Keaton has a wicked sense of humor, a macabre vision of the world, and a penchant for movie references, back-and-forth dialogue, and getting lost on tangents, adding to his stories’ crossover into crime, horror, sexploitation, confrontation, animal expiration, and political jabs. I had a blast reading these stories, so let’s go over a few.

Keaton starts with a long introduction, listing, with detailed explanation, his favorite car chases in movies, which he separates into different categories. He touches on the all the big ones, from Bullitt to Blues Brothers, but has a special place in his heart for the Mad Max movies, which are all about car chases (and sometimes all car chases). I can’t say that any of this is fiction—unless he’s lying and he’s never seen these movies, which is always possible.

“The Ear Eater of Jasper County” is about an impromptu meeting of monster enthusiasts who meet in a gas station to share monster run-in stories and photos, but also happens to be filmed by a Bigfoot-hunting reality TV crew. There’s all kinds of recognizable monsters here, from chupacabras to Nessie. Our narrator, however, has a thing in a cage that likes to rip the ear off of farm animals—probably to eat?—and it gets loose in the station and well what else do you need to know?

“Movies for Milkweed” is a love story about a young filmmaker who falls love with a woman, and in a different sort of way, what else do you need to know?

The young girl in “Turtle Cake,” Bolita Ramirez, makes booby-trapped turtle sculptures out of various metal parts like helmets and bike chains, lures for assholes who like to run over turtles in the middle of the road. The girl hides spikes and other nastiness inside, just to see if she can blow the tires, or worse. Worse happens when a local boy is thrown from his car and killed, though this doesn’t impede Bolita in the least.

This brings us to our featured story of the day, what I would call the quintessential David James Keaton story, “Fasten Your Meat Belts.” Oddly, when I jumped ahead to this piece, I’d just eaten Thanksgiving dinner, and was sitting back in the couch, thinking that Fasten Your Meat Belts was a reference to eating to much meat—which I’d just accomplished—so I was thinking that I’d run across a good theme story for today’s holiday.

Nope. This one’s about a guy who arrives early at a Prince concert—he’s a big fan—and steps into one of the Port-a-Johns lined up on the outskirts of the concourse. Already, we have Prince and public urination, checking a couple of Keaton boxes.

From there, our guy overhears some guys in neighboring commodes, talking about this and that. He’s nosy as hell—and not going anywhere—so he listens in, the other guys talking loud enough so they can hear each other from booth to booth.

The conversation eventually gets to the fact that one of the guys has two penises, two working penises, which of course catches the attention of our hero. He goes from nosy to involved, insinuating himself into the conversation, wanting to know the mechanics and logistics of how this could possibly work. All by yelling to the other guys in the Port-a-Johns next to his.

At this point, you might know why the story is called “Fasten Your Meat Belts,” and that it has nothing to do with too much protein on a national holiday.

From there, our guy has to see it, or at least see the man in question. The story takes a slight twist when he exits his stall and sees Matt Fink, none other than Dr. Fink, Revolution keyboardist (I’m a Prince fan, but had to look that one up). Does Dr. Fink have two dicks? Or did he just happen to walk by when the actual two-dicked guy left his toilet? Did a writer actually come up with this story and publish it in a literary journal and a book? Yes, he did, and that writer is David James Keaton.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read the old overhear-a-port-a-potty-conversation-about-a-guy-with-two-penises-who-might-be-a-famous-musician-story, but David James Keaton has dug it up and has made it his own; his version is fresh, making me see the trope from a new perspective. And that’s what he seems to do in all his work, most recently in Our Pool Party Bus Forever Days: Road Stories, his latest. I always enjoy reading this guy’s work because I know I’m going to get something original, crazy, and so diabolically creative, it scares me I connect so well with the material. Keaton’s one of a kind. I wish I could take some credit for what he does, but he was like this before I ever got ahold of him, and has only gotten better since.

November 25, 2020: “Fowler’s Lake” by Peter Orner

Hey hey hey, Story366!

So, as I’ve been describing lately, it’s time for the Scout tree lot. We’d set up the mechanics of the lot over this past weekend, all the fencing and spikes and pallets, along with the signage and lights and everything else we needed to get going. Today we drilled and placed and priced all the trees—eighty to start out with—then sat around for ninety or so minutes for a soft opening. Since we’re set up in a mall parking lot, we got some light traffic today, people who like having a Christmas tree up for Thanksgiving. The lot opens hard on Friday morning, and I’ll be there, ready for the barrage of Black Friday shoppers … or whatever the 2020 version of that will be in Springfield, Missouri.

So I carried trees today, drilled holes in their trunks, and sawed off fresh cuts with a chain saw. It’s drastically different from what I normally do, read and type all day, so I feel a exhilarated, albeit tired. It’s kind of a bummer that my busiest three weeks of the teaching year coincide with this event, but hey, when I’m stressed out over grading and tabulating, it’s good to get outside and exert myself physically. I pretty much jumped on this post the moment I walked in the door, and had finished commenting on a story a few minutes before walking out of it. So, a balancing act of not only braun vs. brain, but also my schedule, making sure I have enough time to do everything. As always, I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, wish me luck!

Story366 continues on as well, and right now I’m smack-dab in the middle of a Two-Timers Week, a week where I’m covering authors for a second time, for a different book. Today Peter Orner is our Two-Timer, me having covered another collection of his, Esther Stories, back in September of 2016. For this post, I read from Maggie Brown & Others, out in 2019 from Little, Brown. I’ve always liked Orner’s work, so I’m glad to be featuring him again, to be reading this much-heralded collection from last year, and to be able to share what I’ve experienced with you.

Esther Stories is an interrelated collection of stories, taking place across decades in the mid-twentieth century. The jacket info says that Maggie Brown & Others is interrelated as well. Truthfully, I’ve read ten or so stories from this collection—all two to five pages long—and I haven’t seen a character overlap yet. Nor, I should note, have I met Maggie Brown. I hope to read the rest of this collection soon, but just FYI, I will not be speaking to the connectedness of this book, nor offer any insight as to who Maggie Brown could be.

I love everything I read from the book, anyway, Orner’s characters and their predicaments so darn engaging. He has the power to establish his people and their problems almost immediately, drawing you through the rest of the story, to see what happens, to see if these people get through whatever it is that’s irking them. It was late by the time I to this, but I ended up reading more stories than I’d planned, simply because they’re so good and I couldn’t stop.

The book is cut up into different sections, sections that do seem to organize the stories—over fifty of them—accurately. The first section is “Come Back to California” and I read several stories from it, all of them taking place in the Golden State, including the opener, “The Deer.” It’s about a woman who watches a mountain lion chase a dear into a swamp, then give up when the water got too deep. The deer, however, is stuck out in the water, in the mud, and our hero tries to find help to get the deer out, but realized it’s too late, leaving her with a lasting, horrible memory.

“Tomales Baby (Emily)” is about Emily, a woman is hosting Thanksgiving—how timely!—for her husband and his grown children. Pictures of her husband’s dead wife, the children’s mother, still populate the house, a ghost that haunts her. She feels like a stranger in her own home but comes across some comforting thoughts.

The man in “Naked Man Hides” is arrested, out on the road in his birthday suit, and finds the situation funny. His family, however, does not, as they remember what he doesn’t, the state he was in, when arrested, so hopped-up on goofballs, for so long, that indecent exposure is the least of the charges he’ll be facing.

The story I’m focusing on today, “Fowler’s Lake,” is also in this first section. This one’s about a young woman who heads out on a late August afternoon to swim in a little swimming hole up on a mountain, a man-made lake that’s only warm enough one month out of the year. Accompanying her is her beau, Billy.

When they pull up, the see only one other person, a very pregnant woman whose car blew a tire out on the road. The woman would like the couple to help her, fix her tire. When Billy declares this impossible—the woman doesn’t have a spare and Billy’s won’t fit—they agree to drive her into town to get help, only after they swim. They promise to swim for only a half an hour, asking the woman to join them, but she declines, choosing to watch them from shore.

Our hero and Billy swim, occasionally catching glances of the pregnant woman staring out at them. Time slips away and the couple is done with their swim closer to an hour later. The pregnant woman, however, is nowhere to be seen, but the couple searches, anyway, calling out to her. They assume she left, finding another ride, and move on.

Three days later, however, our protagonist and narrator see a news report, declaring the pregnant woman missing. She and Billy go to the police and explain what they know. We don’t, however, get a firm answer to what happens to the woman.

Our narrator, however, feels as if the woman was watching them as they searched for her. She describes the scene in detail, believing the woman to be hiding for a particular reason, a reason I won’t reveal here.

After that first section, I skipped around, reading a piece from each of the other parts (except the last, which is a novella, which I haven’t gotten to yet). “The Return” chronicles a woman’s tale of her long-lost brother returning to her life, calling her, out of the blue, for the first time in fifteen years. So much has happened since he’d left, including everyone else in their family dying. The brother doesn’t want to hear about that, though. He only wants stories from their childhood, nostalgia of happiness, some of which our narrator makes up, her brother none the wiser.

“Speech at the Urinal, Drake Hotel, Chicago, December 1980,” is about a young man recounting his father’s wisdom. His father held on to old values and hated how the world had changed—hippies and drugs and whatnot—explaining to him how to be a man, and what was good and just in the world (which seems like sketchy advice, especially now).

“Erwin and Pauline” is a sad love story about a man who is found dead, floating in the Chicago River, and how he got there. It’s told by a niece or a nephew (Uncle Erwin is how he’s referred to), explaining how Erwin was a simple janitor who married a much-younger teacher from the school where he worked, who was surprisingly into their uncle. That marriage ends, but once Erwin dies, Auntie Pauline returns to pay her respects, suspicion abound.

“Rhinebeck” is about a man who goes into marriage counseling with his wife, visiting a therapist in her home. The therapist’s husband, a retired therapist, sits in on the sessions (for some reason), a couple doing couples therapy. Things go as therapy goes until the husband therapist calls our narrator, the husband, with a grave warning about his wife.

Every story I read in Maggie Brown & Others is a story I wanted to be longer, to spend more than just a few pages with these characters, in these predicaments, all of them so compelling, so well crafted. Peter Orner is a master of the short-short, understanding just what the arc is in a story that short, and how much he can cram in. This is such a great book, I can’t wait to get back to it and finish it off, meet more of these fascinating people and watch them go.

November 24, 2020: “Rag” by Maryse Meijer

Good morning to you, Story366!

It’s Tuesday before Thanksgiving and I’m revved up early today. I have a couple of meetings and some grading to finish up, but then I should be clear for most of the weekend. It’ll be a good time to enjoy my family, some good food, and some shifts at the Scout tree lot. Just got to get through today and then … well, the two busiest weeks of my entire year. So, it’s that whole calm-before-the-storm thing I’m looking forward to after today. You know what? I’ll take a little calm right now.

I wonder if I’ve shared this here before, but even if I have, who’s keeping track? What I wish would happen to the academic year is we just start around August 1 and then make Thanksgiving the end of the semester. The start of the semester has already been moved back from post-Labor Day—what it was when I was a kid—to mid-August. Since we have to go sixteen weeks, we’re forced to go to early December, then a week of finals, meaning there’s always this two weeks between the major winter holidays that students need to come back for after they’ve been asked to leave their dorms for Thanksgiving. Since a lot of students just take the entire week off—many professors and instructors comply by not having classes—a good number of students end up having a nine-day Thanksgiving break. That’s a lot of days just to eat a big meal.

Why not just dial it back two more weeks in August, start around the first, and give us five weeks off from Thanksgiving week until after New Year’s? The students aren’t home at farms, working the harvest (not most of them, anyway), and we don’t have to worry about air-conditioning the buildings, as those are running year round, anyway. Why send students home for a week—which isn’t all that optional—only to bring them back for the two most focused weeks of their year?

On top of all that, I lose a lot of students this week. People who aren’t doing all that well go home, get embroiled in whatever’s going on there, and decide not to come back. For students teetering in the middle of gutting it out vs. throwing in the towel, that time at home can often tip the scales toward towel-tossing. Happens every semester, and even this year, in coronavirusapocalypse, everything online, I suspect one or two from every class will just decide to stop trying, never to be heard from again.

I’m privileged to work in academia and get long breaks, four whole weeks for the winter holidays. I’m willing to give up two more weeks of sweet, sweet summer, though, in exchange for a holiday extravabonanza of a winter break, all the holidays, all the time. Who’s with me?!?!

Today I continue with a Two-Timers Week at Story366, weeks where I cover authors for a second time, for a different book. Maryse Meijer is today’s author, whose debut collection, Heartbreaker, was covered here in July of 2016. Her follow-up, Rag, out earlier this year from FSG, is today’s focus, more than a worthy successor to that first book, displaying as much skill and dark realism as its predecessor.

The opening story, “Her Blood,” might be my favorite, as it’s about a nineteen-year-old guy who works in a small pizza kitchen/restaurant, just like I did at that age. Except this guy, in the opening scene, sees a young woman emerge from the bathroom, her white jeans soaked in blood. The woman asks him for help, that she’s just had a miscarriage, and she needs an ambulance. The young man complies, and after she’s taken away, he cleans the enormous bloody mess, including the dark mass he finds in the toilet. Within days, the woman is back at the restaurant, along with her unsuspecting baby daddy, trading glances with our hero, who’s interested, but wary of the boyfriend. Oh, and he’s also a virgin. The woman begins to call and visit the restaurant by herself, intermittently, leading our guy to grow more bold.

“Good Girls” is told from a dog’s point of view. This dog is a stray that seems to be hanging around a bunch of teenage girls, girls who sometimes like to pet him, but also sometimes like to get drunk, throw chips at him and spray him with soda, and shoot BB guns at him. What makes this interesting, and sad in a scary kind of way, is that the dog has clear thoughts, remembers being a human man, and is still just close enough to his humanity to recall what it was like to be loved.

“Alice” is from the perspective of a man who is living in some absurd situation, one where he’s also a submissive of sorts. His wife, Wendy, keeps cutting the meat out of his diet until he’s a forced vegan, while at the same time, feeding overloads of animal protein to their pre-teen daughter, Alice, who’s become grossly obese. At first, it seems like a regimen they’ve all agreed to, but when our guy finds a ten out in the gutter–he has no money of his own–and buys three fast-food cheeseburgers, his wife makes him stay in the guest house as punishment when she finds the bag in the car. The situation with our guy gets downright abusive by the end of the story, but for Alice, it just gets stranger and stranger as Alice grows larger and larger, her mother creating some kind of proxy-Jack Sprat situation that’s disturbing and weird.

The guy in “At the Sea” is in the middle of some nervous breakdown thing, in a motel at the beach and not going to work. Doubling down on his fucked-upness, he snatches a little girl who was playing in the sand and takes her back to his motel, where she plays and seems relatively happy. There’s no specific mention of any kind of abuse, but at the little-girl-in-your-motel stage, I’m not sure there has to be.

“Rag,” the title and final story of the book, is told from the perspective of a rag (and you thought “Good Girls” was going to be the daring one here). This rag “lives” with a couple, a couple that uses it for everything, from kinky sex games to wiping up spills.

This story is interesting in how Meijer uses said rag to tell the story of this couple. This piece is bookended with the rag in the woman’s mouth in what I believe is the aforementioned kinky sex, but at the same time, coming from the rag’s perspective, we don’t really know. How adept is this rag at reading a situation? That’s kind of the beauty of this story, that’s it’s an unreliable rag. Maybe this is part of the sex games these people play. Maybe it’s something darker; the rag even wonders this, as it’s awfully far down the woman’s throat and not being pulled out when she starts to gag.

Aside from these dark moments, there’s some levity here, the rag boasting about its pliability and eagerness to please. If it were an employee being reviewed, it’d receive good marks in those areas, as well as glowing reviews for its flexibility, it serving all those jobs and never complaining. Its reward? Being inside, because after all, as the rag notes, we all want to be inside.

Maryse Meijer’s stories are darkly real, expertly crafted, and subtly funny, making Rag an overall winning release. This collection punishes its heroes for attempting to move beyond themselves, pitting them in frustrating, sometimes awful lots. Meijer is so skilled in drawing her portraits, it’s hard not to get caught up in all the misery, like rubbernecking to catch a glimpse of the car crash, then driving around the block, over and over, to see it again and again.

November 23, 2020: “A Place to Hide Precious Things”by Amber Sparks

Here’s to Monday, Story366!

Can you taste Thanksgiving yet? I can certainly taste it. Today I finished my classes finished up for the week with two independent-study meetings tomorrow. I have some stories to comment on, stories that have lingered, but by Wednesday morning, I’ll be done with everything and anything, at least for a few days. I’m looking as forward to that point as I am the delicious dinner we have planned.

So when I said, “Can you taste Thanksgiving yet?” I was really employing a double-meaning.

In case you didn’t pick up on that.

(Or that this has been a blah day and this is the best intro I could come up with).

Today I continue with the latest Two-Timers Week at Story366, a week where I cover an author for a second time, for a different book. The author I’m making a Two-Timer today is Amber Sparks. I’ve followed Sparks’ work for a long time, both of us with books on Curbside Splendor a while back. I covered an earlier collection of hers, The Unfinished World, back in January of 2016, and have now read into her latest book, And I Do Not Forgive You: Stories and Other Revenges, out this year from Liveright. I’m always up for reading this author’s work, so having this new collection in hand and reading it today has been a real treat.

And I Do Not Forgive You is made up of flash stories and regular-type stories, and I read a mix from throughout the book. The story I’m focusing on today, “A Place to Hide Precious Things,” is a modern fairy tale, as it involves a princess, a kind, and a fairy godmother. This is not a traditional fairy tale by any means, however, as the king is not trying to find a handsome suitor for his daughter (which is problematic enough in its own right), but instead is himself the suitor: The king finds his daughter lovely and insists on keeping her for his own, which is as odd and creepy and unacceptable as it sounds.

The princess, not wanting to marry her father, gets help from her fairy godmother—whom she just meets—a godmother who offers help. Because it’s a fairy tale, she can’t just make the princess go to a safe place or alter the king’s desires. Instead, there’s a series of tricks that have to be performed, hoops to jump through to give this fairy tale structure. The princess insists that a series of three dresses be made for her wedding—one the color of blood, one the color of bone, and one the color of death—before she will be married. Her father, disturbed but still determined, agrees, and has his people make the dresses for his daughter, dresses that are lovely and macabre and will no doubt be designed by the fashion industry’s most iconic names in the movie version of this story.

Sadly, the goth dresses don’t work in fending off gross Dad, so the fairy has to smuggle the princess out of the castle and out of town. To do so, she slaughters a donkey and puts the carcass on the princess, Luke-in-the-Tauntaun-style, just to throw the king’s hounds off her scent. She is able to escape this way, then gets one more piece of advice from the fairy godmother: to burn the donkey skin once she’s found true love, or otherwise, she’ll never truly know it.

The story takes a real turn from there, as the princess is settled in New York, her father and his awful stigma behind her (mostly … more on this in a bit). She befriends a butcher right away, and the two become close, but not lovers. The princess emerges as an artist and uses blood from the butcher’s shop to paint gory masterpieces. The butcher becomes a confidant and supplier, and seems to be a man who does not wish to do her harm. Which is exactly what she needs.

She then meets a fellow art student, a man she does fall in love with. They start a passionate and creative affair, and not all that far in, she burns the donkey skin, believing she has found her true love. It’s sad that this couple doesn’t last, because if the fairy godmother’s words are true, as the princess will never find true love.

Sparks takes the story in yet another direction, one that gives the princess some form of resolution, something that leads her toward the ending of all fairy tales. But is there really a happy ending for the princess, given all she’s endured? This story uses those fairy tale tropes as metaphors for abuse and how it always follows the victim around, not to mention how hard it is to get away from that abuser. Like real-life victims, the princess here can’t shake what’s happened to her, the awfulness forming her from then on.

“Mildly Happy, With Moments of Joy,” the lead story, follows the friendship of two women. It starts with a meet cute at coffee shop, then blossoms into a camaraderie that endures marriage, divorce, and children. Then, all of sudden, out of nowhere, one friend disappears, cutting the other friend out of her life forever, leaving the abandoned friend dumbstruck and sa d. I couldn’t help but think this is what relationships are, even close ones, and think of people I thought with whom I thought I’d be friends forever, but one day, just never spoke to them again, for whatever reason.

“A Short and Slightly Speculative History of Lavoisier’s Wife” is a laundry list of facts about Lavoisier’s wife. Lavoisier was a French chemist whose wife led a much more interesting and important life than he did, but I think Sparks’ point here is that he’s the one marked in history, because he’s a man, hence the ironic insistence on called Lavoisier’s wife by that name instead of her own.

The woman leading up “The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines” has a superpower, to become invisible. She’s not like Sue Storm, but is the average, unassuming person who nobody notices. She uses her ability to blend in and then quickly disappear to start a life of crime, stealing small, dine-and-dashes, drinks at a bar, and the like. In Vegas, while shoplifting a thirty-dollar bath bomb, a man comes up to her, the man from the title, and he’s on to her. He, like her, is unnoticeable, but he’s been following her. He wants to get to know her, to sleep with her, to be invisible together, but our invisible woman has other ideas.

“Death Deserves All Caps: On Planning for My (Very Far-Off) Funeral” is a list story, one that does exactly what the subtitle says, humorously yet still insightfully.

“When the Husband Grew Wings” is about a woman whose husband is bland and boring. She sprinkles some magic powder on his cereal, knowing something will grow. Wings sprout from his back, then evolve into fully functional aparatuses (aparati?). The husband, still bland and boring, has no interest in flying, and when the woman prompts him to try, it’s an unfabulous venture. Believing she can do better where her man has failed, the woman sprinkles some magic powder on her own cereal, and Voilà! she indeed surpasses his paltry efforts.

I love every story in Amber Sparks’ latest collection And I Do Not Forgive You, her sometimes magical, sometimes absurd, and always biting latest collection. The woman in these stories endure lots of hardships—all of them caused by the men in their lives—but Spark is able to heroically depict their journeys from abused, ignored, and castigated characters into full-blown heroes, people who overcome, or try to, their unfortunate beginnings. These are powerful, fun, and fresh stories, Sparks’ best work yet, and I highly recommend this book, which will surely fall on my best-of list later this year.

November 22, 2020: “A Gram of Mars” by Becky Hagenston

Happy Sunday, Story366!

Today, my older boy and I went to help another Scout with his Eagle Scout project, a high-end service project the Scout puts together and executes for the betterment of some non-profit organization and our community. This particular project was building a pergola in a community garden, one we started last week and finished today. I’m not the most construction-savvy parent in the troop, as we have a lot of parents who actually do construction-type things for a living. But I know enough about tools and geometry and not sitting down while others are working to be useful.

The last step of the project was placing fourteen slats across the top of the whole structure, spread evenly from one side to the other. Since the instructions the Scout was using weren’t specific—”place slats evenly across top of pergola”—we had to do some math. And this is where we hit a snag, measuring out the marks for the slats three times before we got it right. It was me and two other adults, one of which is one of those fix-it guys, the other like me, someone who sits at his desk and reads for a living. Anyway, we nailed it on the third try—a little carpenter humor for you there—and I thought I’d pose the problem, just to give you SAT nightmares. Here goes:

The distance the slats would encompass is 127.5″ long. There are fourteen slats. Each slat is 1.5″ wide. Now, spread the slats evenly across that length.

Easy, right? Divide 127.5 by 14 and you have your marks.

Wrong. The snag here is that a slat will go flush up against each edge of the 127.5 inches. Dividing the length by 14 puts a slat in the middle of 14 equally divided areas, not with one on each edge.

So, we had to figure the area between those two ends slats. We eventually got it when we subtracted those two slats from the 127.5, giving us 124.5. Then we subtracted the width of the remaining 12 slats—18 inches—to get he total area of the gaps between the slats. We made a quick error, thinking there was 14 gaps, but then we remembered there aren’t 14 gaps—there are 13 gaps, as we’re counting in-between. So, that means the gap between each slat is 124.5-18, or 106.5, divided by 13, which is 8.19, or 8.2″ between slats.

Not only did we have three adults there—one construction guy and me with my math minor—but four high school kids who study math every day, including my son in geometry this year. In some ways I’m ashamed I didn’t get it on the first try, but in other ways, I’m not ashamed at all, because nobody else figured it correctly, either.

In any case, that’s how I spent my early afternoon, cutting, sanding, and measuring out pergola slats.

Today I’m starting another Two-Timers Week at Story366, likely the last of the year. A Two-Timers Week is when I spend a whole week covering a second book by authors I’ve covered here before. I think this is the fourth or fifth one of these, as there’s just so many authors who have more than one collection I want to read. Today’s Two-Timer is Becky Hagenston, an author I covered here in 2016 when I read from her newest collection, Scavengers. Today I’m going back to her debut collection, A Gram of Mars, out in 1997 from Sarabande as a winner of their Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. I’ve read lots of Hagenston’s work before, and in fact, published a story of hers in Mid-American Review and another in Moon City Review. She ranks among my favorite story writers, so it was a pleasure to track down this book and feature her here again today.

The title story, “A Gram of Mars,” is up first and the one I’m focusing on. This one is about Cathy, a woman who’s visiting her parents back east after moving to Tucson two years earlier. Her parents divorced right before she left, the nail in the coffin of her leaving, though she was determined to get away, anyway, well before her mother, Rita, decided that her father, Ernie, wasn’t paying enough attention to her and left.

Cathy is staying with her father in his tiny sub-level apartment. Ernie is sad as all get-out, and still has been calling Cathy, begging her to talk to her mother, to tell her that he’s changed and to take him back. Rita already has a new fiancé, however, and wants no part of Ernie anymore. Ernie is only able to guilt Cathy into the visit—which cleans out her bank account—after threatening suicide.

Ernie’s an odd guy, we find out, concerning himself with all kinds of distractions to pass his time. One such pursuit is astronomy, and Cathy finds out that he has purchased a small fragment of Mars, one of only twelve confirmed pieces on Earth, for three thousand dollars. He, and Cathy, are so in debt, Cathy wants to throw up over her father’s foolishness. She regrets coming home and doesn’t foresee herself making that mistake again.

Rita, meanwhile, wants Cathy to go to dinner with her and Joe, her fiancé, and Cathy bargains for just Rita. Ernie gets wind of this arrangement and horns in, insisting he take both of them to dinner. Rita begrudgingly agrees, so Ernie and Cathy meet her at the house, the house they all used to live in together. Ernie is more happy to see his old dog than anything, again coming off as kooky and distracted.

As you might guess, Rita and Ernie get into, eventually, the evening marred by their inability to get along, let alone keep Cathy interested in ever returning to Maryland. I won’t go into specifics as to what happens at the end of this story, but it’s a mess of modern family dynamics (modern at least in 1997), Hagenston gracefully carrying her character through some detailed craziness, all in good fun, for everyone except Cathy.

“Close Enough” is about Janice, a woman who constantly has to deal with her son’s current and ex-girlfriends. Davey, the son, is kind of a heartthrob, but he’s fickle and non-committed, always moving out of Janice’s house, in with some woman, only to return months later when it doesn’t work out. The story starts with a familiar scene to Janice, Davey’s current girl calling her in the middle of the night, sobbing, wondering where Davey is. Janice knows this is a sign of the end, that Davey will soon show up at her door, asking to move back in, but for now, she has to deal with Davey’s mess. What makes this story so interesting, aside from the aforementioned situation, is that Janice likes to hang out with Davey’s exes, after they’ve become exes, particularly Sheila. Sheila has become her drinking buddy, which has led Janice down some bad paths, including blackouts and some drinking and driving. She is more than happy, in a lot of ways, to deal with Davey’s women when he’s done with them, as she’s lonely, too, willing to fill her time with whomever is willing and able.

“Fugue” is a really cool story about a quirky family headed up by a bizarre man of a dad. The story opens with sound moving through their house like a solid object, then Hagenston takes us backward to see how we’ve arrived there. The dad, years earlier, saw an ad in a paper for a do-it-yourself pipe organ, one that would come in pieces, a box of parts every other week, and take two years to assemble. Dad disappears into the study, where he’s building this monstrous organ, all but abandoning his family. The kids—the story focuses on his daughter, Rachel—are looked after by nannies and ladies from their church, most everyone thinking the dad has either died or moved to Portugal. By the time he emerges from the study, the family may not survive, not even with the wondrous gift of this strange and powerful organ.

I’m alway up for reading a Becky Hagenston story, so I had a good day reading from A Gram of Mars today. The families depicted in this collection are nonconventional, but everyone adjusts, figures out a way to at least get by, even if the family falls part in the process. These are vivid, intense, and rewarding stories, nothing less than what I expected going in.

November 21, 2020: “The Cubs” by Mario Vargas Llosa, Translated by Gregory Kolovakos and Ronald Christ

Happy Saturday, Story366!

Today began the Scout tree lot I’ve been talking about lately, as 461 freshly cut trees arrived from Michigan. Me and fifty other members of our troop family—Scouts, parents, siblings, friends, etc.—unloaded the trees from the truck and stacked them into connexes (connex?), which took a couple of hours. We set up the stands and lights and even put a sled on top of the trailer, which we’ll adorn with garland and lights. We were going to cut trees and get them ready for selling for a soft opening tomorrow, but it’s supposed to be thirty degrees and pouring down rain, so we decided to forego the soft opening and just open hard on Black Friday. We’ll probably get everything ready on Wednesday, when the Scouts are off and most adults are, too, including me. I can practically taste it, the tree lot, the sales, the pine smell (I smell like pine right now), and the feel of a sixty-pound Fraser fir on my shoulder, lugging it to the saw horses for a fresh cut.

What all of this isn’t is sitting at a computer and typing. No offense, Story366, I love you, but coupled with all the Blackboard work and Zoom meetings I’ve endured this term because of COVID, I’m super-glad to be getting outside, working with my hands, and breaking a sweat. I adore my job and enjoy working with the students, but at this point of the year, my butt, fingers, and eyes are sore from all this sitting around and typing and thinking. Tree lot, like the beer-vending gig every summer, allows me to work in a different way, to exert myself physically instead of mentally, and to learn some new skills—like chain-sawing, drilling, knot-tying, and salesmanship. Given the lack of any beer vending this past summer, I’m super-eager to get out to the lot this year, to shill some timber. By the end of the season—especially if it’s a rainy or cold month—I’ll be more than happy to get back to my computer. Until then, though, who wants to bring home some family memories? We got that.

For today’s post I’m reading the oldest book I think I’ve ever read for this (save Rosellen Brown’s), The Cubs and Other Stories by Mario Vargas Llosa, out in 1979 from Harper & Row (remember that version?) and translated by Gregory Kolovakos and Ronald Christ. Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2010 and is one of Peru’s, and South America’s, most prestigious writers—he even ran for president back in 1990 and narrowly lost. I ran across his book a while ago at a used bookstore, and seeing how old it was, almost didn’t buy it as I lean toward contemporary titles. But come on! This book is called The Cubs! How could I resist? As I’m winding down the year, and this project as a daily venture, I want to explore every title and author I can, and if that includes reading a Nobel laureate, then I’m a lucky reader.

My main reading today involved that title piece, “The Cubs,” which is actually long a novella, and is about five boys growing up in Peru, tight friends for life. The crew includes Choto, Chingolo, Manny, Lalo, and Cuéllar, all of them attending Champargnat Academy, a Catholic brothers school, all of them working hard to play soccer, to make the school team, to be like the heroes they’ve seen on TV and in the grand stadiums. They all have varying degrees of skill, right down to Cuéllar, who is not athletic or coordinated at all. But he works at it, well enough to make it, anyway.

This is where Cuéllar starts to become the focus of this story, separated out from the other four. Sadly, this is most evident when Judas—the evil Great Dane who lives on the property alongside their practice field—gets out and chases the boys into their locker room. They devise a plan to trap the beast in a shower stall, closing and locking a door. Tragically, their friend Cuéllar is stuck in the stall with Judas and Judas bites him in the penis. Blood is everywhere, Cuéllar is traumatized, but overall, he gets through the incident.

Except that everyone starts calling him P.P. after that, a nicknaming that haunts Cuéllar for a whole chapter (yes, this novella is cut into chapters), until he finally reckons himself with it, months later, suspicious when someone calls him by his give name.

From there, the boys start to get interested in girls, each of them gradually finding someone that they will date for the rest of their lives (except one swap later on). This starts during their freshman year of high school, the last one—aside from Cuéllar—finding someone in college. Celibacy causes Cuéllar to start acting oddly, whether it’s showing up drunk to Christmas mass or surfing down the local river, Cuéllar transforming from an odd little boy into a weirdly dangerous man.

Relief almost comes in the form of Terry, a girl the boys all know who kind of likes Cuéllar. She pursues him for a long time, and he even pursues her, but whatever rules of courtship the boys, and Vargas Llosa, follow, he has to ask her to go steady or it’s not a real thing. The four remaining Cubs do everything in their power to push Cuéllar toward the pairing they think will settle him down and bring him happiness, but it just doesn’t happen. Maybe that dog biting his yank when he was a kid has something to do with it? Maybe. Cuéllar has no problem visiting whores (Vargas Llosa’s word) before … and during … and especially after the Terry courtship, when he blows it and she starts dating another guy.

Losing Terry, even though it’s his own fault, doesn’t do anything for Cuéllar’s mental state, and he just degrades from there. He gets involved in auto racing, but more like the street-racing type. I won’t go any further into the plot, as that’s far enough, but I can’t help leaving this story thinking that young Cuéllar’s life would have been different if that Great Dane never gnawed his gack off.

I should note that this novella isn’t just the story, but the style in which it’s written. The whole thing is a hybrid first-person-singular-plural/third-person mix, written in long paragraphs, paragraphs that are often one chaotic sentence, running on and on. This gives the story a stream-of-consciousness effect, one character, one storyline, one train of thought bleeding into the next. It’s quite an experience, reading this story, falling into Llosa’s patterns and voice, seeing a genius at work.

I’m glad I picked up The Cubs and Other Stories and got to know Mario Vargas Llosa’s work a little today. I think he has more landmark books than this old collection of stories, books I should probably check out. If he has one called The Bears, I might have to hit that one up next.

November 20, 2020: “Without Inspection” by Edwidge Danticat

Friday’s here again, Story366!

Today has been a day of meetings, everyone trying to get everything in before Thanksgiving week. I had four Zooms today and will have a few on Monday, carrying me into the long weekend, to the turkey, the stuffing, and all the accoutrements of such a weekend. It’ll be a relief, even this year, when we’re not doing much of anything, just to have a few days where I’m not supposed to be anywhere, no one expecting anything. Of course, that leads into a tough couple of weeks, but hey, that’s the life of the academic. I kinda-sorta love it, how the pressure builds, then just like that, some extended time off before we start it all over again. It’s Sisyphean, but hey, I’m good at pushing that boulder up the mountain, so like I always say, if it ain’t broke, don’t Sisyphix it.

Today I got to read from Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat‘s latest collection, Everything Inside, out in 2019 from Vintage. I’ve read Danticat’s work before, including her first collection, Krik? Krak!, which was way back last century somehow. In-between, she’s put out a ton of other books and racked up all kinds of awards and nominations, making her one of our more distinguished writers. I remember liking Krik? Krak! way back when, I know I love the stories I read today from the new book. Let me share some of that with you here.

“The Port-au-Prince Marriage Special” is set in Port-au-Prince in a hotel, run by the narrator and her husband. Their nanny, Mèlisande, suddenly gets sick, then goes to the doctor and discovers she has AIDS. She is put into quarantine in the hotel while our narrator and her husband pay for her medicine, two months’ worth of pills at two bucks a pop. Mèlisande is at first heartbroken, and also claims that she has no idea how she contracted the disease, that she’s a non-drug user and a virgin. Her mother, the hotel maid, doesn’t believe her, but still Mèlisande gets better with the medicine, both physically and mentally. Lo and behold, when she goes back for refills, they all find out that the doctor was a fraud, that the pills were placebos, and the crook has been chased off the island. This all leads to an admission on the part of Mèlisande, as well as the exposure of a oft-used con, luring people like Mèlisande into this very situation.

“Hot-Air Balloons” features Lucy as its narrator. She’s a college student down in Miami and at the outset, gets an email from her roommate, Neah, declaring that she’s dropping out. Neah just spent Thanksgiving break volunteering at a rape victims center down in Haiti and wants to dedicate her life to this effort, having seen some horrible things on her trip. Neah’s father, a prominent Haitian scholar, tasks Lucy with talking Neah out of her choice, so Lucy tracks her down at the charity’s headquarters, only to find Neah is absolutely set on her choice, explaining some of the awful cases she came across (they’re as bad as you can imagine). In the end, this mostly peripheral story lands on Lucy, who wonders when she’ll find her calling, when she’ll be as sure about something as good and just as Neah feels about her cause.

The last story in the book, “Without Inspection,” is what I’ll focus on today, as it’s my favorite. This story starts with Arnold, a construction worker, falling from an impossibly high platform, toward what will be his certain death. Danticat notes he has six and a half seconds until impact, which becomes, for Arnold, a lifetime.

And in fact, Arnold’s life passes before his eyes, (very similarly to what happens to the guy in the bank in Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain”), the key moments from Arnold’s existence played out as most of the rest of the story. We find out that Arnold crossed over to Miami on a boat, but the captain, not all that close to the beach, told everyone to jump in and swim to shore. Not all those refugees made it, all four women and some of the nine men drowning, oh so close to their goal.

Waiting on the beach for Arnold is Darline, a woman who doesn’t know Arnold, but rushes him off in her car, anyway, taking him to the restaurant where she works, feeding him and preparing him for what’s to come: He’s just become an undocumented illegal—the other surviving men were picked up by agents. Arnold doesn’t know why Darline was at the beach, waiting for him, but is grateful.

Danticat gives us Darline’s story, revealing that when she crossed over, her partner did not make it, drowning, his body never found. Ever since, she has combed the beaches early in the morning, looking for other souls like her partner, like Arnold, hoping to save someone else instead.

Darline also has a son, Paris, who crossed over with her. Paris took an immediate liking to Arnold, asking him if he was his papa the first time they met. Arnold replies, “Maybe,” looking coyly and hopefully at Darline, who looks coyly back. From there, the three are a family, and eventually, Arnold gets the fateful job at the construction site.

It should be noted that Arnold, when he reaches the earth on his fall, does not hit the ground, but instead falls into a cement mixer, which immediately, saves his life. I don’t want to go any further into what happens, though I’ll say that Danticat takes her story to a surprising place, one that moves well beyond the Does he make it or not? question.

It was a treat to read from Edwidge Danticat’s latest book, Everything Inside, her collection of stories about Haitian and Haitian-American people trying to make their way, overcome obstacles, and retain their identities, be they ex-pats or natives Haitians who never left. I was pulled through every piece by Danticat’s easy prose and compelling plot lines, but mostly by her fascinating characters, people who just want their own piece, but have to jump through hoops to get it. This is a really great collection and surely would have been on my top list for 2019.