November 8, 2020: “Harp” by Rita Bullwinkel

Happiest of Sundays to you, Story366!

Last night, I scribbled some happy thoughts down, as I was posting near midnight and didn’t have time to get into the pure elation I felt over Joe Biden’s victory. Having known about this for over twenty-four hours now, it’s sunk in that this is real, is not reversible, and is already fully in motion, steps being taken to ensure that he hits the ground running on January 20. I am especially in love with the task force he’s put together to match up those 500+ refugee kids with their parents. We could point to a lot of priorities, such as COVID-19 (for which he also has a plan), but reversing this tragedy—kids in cages, not knowing where their parents are or if they’ll ever see them again—is a sound place to start.

There’s so many good things to talk about, so many positives, so it’s good that I still have another fifty-two days after today to cover them all. Today, though, I feel the same way so many of friends do, expressing themselves on social media with posts about finally being able to breathe, having a huge burden removed from their backs, and for tasting hope again for the first time in four years. I echo all that, as the sun seems shinier today, the air seems cleaner, and my whole future appears to be opening up. I can’t wait to track this new era of the world, of my life. It’s a great day with so many more to come.

For this post, I was more than happy to read from Rita Bullwinkel‘s debut collection, Belly Up, out from A Strange Object in 2016 (in the U.S. in 2018). I’ve not read any of Bullwinkel’s work before, but have heard good things, and have found them all well grounded in the stories I read today.

The first story, “Harp,” is notably good. This one’s about an unnamed woman who witnesses a car accident along the highway, sees a dead man with his head on a steering wheel as she drives by. This incites an old memory, one where an old boyfriend told her of an uncle of his, who just died, who had two families: One in the States, and one in Malaysia, where he did business. She refers to this uncle as the split man and can’t stop thinking about him.

Our hero works at a university, as the secretary in the Music Department. After this accident, while she’s thinking about the split man, she also becomes obsessed with harps. She listens to them in her office and walks by them in their harp rooms. When no one’s looking, she approaches the harps, sits down in front of them, touches them. The university is having a recital and she buys two tickets.

She can’t stop thinking about the split man, though, about his children and wife in the U.S., about his wife and children in Malaysia. She wonders how he was able to do it, what they’re thinking about him now that he’s dead, what it was like to live only two half lives.

One day, the woman wakes up early and tells her husband she has to go into work, that there’s an emergency her boss needs her for. She leaves and calls her boss, tells him that her husband’s brother has died and she won’t be able to come in. She drives into the city and settles into lunch at a nice restaurant.

A handsome man sitting at the table next to her talks her up and soon they’re at the same table, having lunch, trading stories. The woman asks if he’d like to go to a harp recital, plus have dinner at the same restaurant beforehand. The man accepts. They meet up later, having drinks but not dinner, and go to the recital. After what turns out to be a religious-type experience for her, our hero tells the man they’ll have to do it again sometime and drives home.

What happens after I won’t reveal, but it’s an interesting dichotomy, the story of the split man and our protagonist’s obsession with harps. I love that I was trying to make a connection between the two storylines, and while I have theories, I’d rather not share them. The fun of this story isn’t being right or wrong, but enjoying how it’s structured, considering its many possibilities.

“Black Tongue” is about a woman thinking back to childhood, when her family had an exposed light socket, wires and circuits hanging out, and because she thought it looked like spaghetti, she stuck her tongue out and licked it. This basically fries her, leaving her tongue black and swollen, which she eventually has to go to the hospital to have lanced and drained. There are many other stops along the way, however, at different points in time, all referencing her black tongue, whether she’s making her brother spaghetti years later or her family’s remodeling their house.

“Phylum” is an interesting flash piece about a couple who constantly declares what kind of people they are, via very specific things they like and do. The story is repetitive, building with more and more details as it moves along. In a couple short pages, there’s perhaps a more detailed picture of two people than you’d get in most novels.

“Nave” features a young kid whose father tells him that their church has a center, a belly, called the nave. The dad means it to be something spiritual, but because the kid’s a kid, he interprets that into something else, something that’s hungry enough to put anything in its belly.

Rita Bullwinkel’s stories are eclectic and wonderful and unforgettable. I love everything I read in Belly Up, the longer stories and the flashes, Bullwinkel’s range as expansive as her talent. This is a really intriguing and phenomenal collection, the perfect to read on such a glorious day.