November 18, 2020: “Bonnie and Clyde in the Backyard” by K.L. Cook

Wednesday it is, Story366!

Today I committed a major faux pas. Me and the family went to the pool to swim, where the older boy and I do laps. The park pool has pool aerobics in the lap lanes on Wednesdays at 5:30, so we need to get there and get done before then (so start by 4:30). At 4:30, we were ready to roll, but I noticed a few elderly ladies stretching out next to the lanes; not to stereotype, but water aerobics—at our pool—is exclusively attended by women over 55. This, however, is the kind of thinking that got me in trouble. Anyway, right next to the lap lanes is a lifeguard, and at 4:30, we verified with the lifeguard, “Water aerobics at 5:30, right?” The kid thought for a second, then said, yes, water aerobics at 5:30. I said I just wanted to confirm because it looks like people were lining up—looking over at the three ladies at the edge of the lanes. And that’s where I got caught: One of the ladies looked at me and said, “Yes, water aerobics is at 5:30, but I’m here to swim laps.” She then pulled on her bathing cap and goggles and crossed our lane into the free lane next to us.

I was caught assuming that woman, because she fit the profile, was there for water aerobics. My bad. I should not have assumed that.

I got mine, however, when that woman, probably 65 years old, was not only there to swim laps, but was there to swim laps. I don’t claim to be Mark Spitz in the pool—I’m still figuring out form and such—but this woman, twenty years my senior, thoroughly and unequivocally, trounced me. We swam side by side, and every time down and back, she beat me. She lapped me, I’m sure, at least a couple of times.

I mean, it wasn’t a race or anything, but considering I assumed she was there for water aerobics and then she proceeded to wallop me behind the wood shed, I’m humbled today.

For this post, I read from K.L. Cook‘s collection, Long Songs for the Quarantined, out from Willow Springs Books as the winner of its 2010 Spokane Prize for Short Fiction. Cook has a lot of books and has been placing stories in journals for a long time, but I’ve read very few of them over the years. So, of course, it was nice to get a collection of his in my hands, to read a bunch of stories in a row.

I usually try to do the title story of every book, as there’s a sense the writer thinks this is the key story in the collection, perhaps the best story. But really, I’m trying to syphon off the hits that writer gets for searches for their title. Still, once in a while, I just like a different story so much, I can’t help but focus on it instead. That’s the case today with “Bonnie and Clyde in the Backyard,” the lead story in this book (but not the title story). This story features Riley, a tall thirteen-year-old boy growing up in Texas during the Great Depression. He lives on a farm with with mom, brother, sister, and very sick dad, a dad with an enlarged head, probably from some sort of cancer, though the family has no money to get any proper medical attention or diagnosis. The final important detail to set up this story is the fact that Riley’s dad is first cousins with Clyde Barrow’s mom, the two very close as kids. This story features a visit by Clyde, and Bonnie Parker, to Riley’s farm (if you couldn’t guess).

Clyde is a lively, friendly guy, there to lay low, the law after them (this is all happening a few weeks before the duo is gunned own), but also to deliver a message from his mother to Riley’s father. This is welcome by Riley and his dad, who keep a scrapbook of clippings of Clyde’s exploits. Clyde and Bonnie are friendly with the both of them, and Riley even takes a picture of the pair with his dad, wishing he could be in one, too, though that’s never offered.

The real problem is Riley’s mom is not as happy to see Clyde. When she comes home from church with the other two kids, her face reveals all we suspected, that she won’t be posing for any photos, won’t be welcoming the bandits into her home, at least not for long. She makes lunch for the pair, but when Bonnie tries to give her money—$350 in an envelope—she refuses. Clyde comes in and tries again, petitioning her on behalf of his mother, but still, Riley’s mom won’t budge. Bonnie and Clyde drive off—they’d wanted to stay the night but that was nixed, too—and thus ends the greatest story Riley will ever tell.

The story gets really meta from there, Riley the narrator making his presence known, decades later. He’s reflecting on this incident, fondly, revealing what happened next, weeks and decades after Clyde and Bonnie came to the farm. I’m not going to reveal what happens, as that will be something you need to discover on your own.

I read a few of the shorts that inhabit this book, too. “Chalkdust on a Dress” is about a schoolboy’s crush on his teacher. It goes beyond a crush, actually, but ends in the way a relationship like this should end. “Bad Weather” has its protagonist recollecting a car accident where he bumped his head on the dash, his uncle not paying much attention, let alone making him wear a seatbelt. Most of the story tracks the uncle’s decline into a sad existence, as well as how our hero gets his revenge. “When Our Son Died From Leukemia” is what you’d think, chronicling the immediate after for parents who have endured so much only to face the worst result.

That title story, “Love Song for the Quarantined,” is about a man and his nuclear family, a wife and three kids. One of the kids gets super-sick, likely from whooping cough, which spreads to the entire family. They are quarantined, and I dare you to think back ten years when none of you knew that the hell that was like. In any case, this dad takes us through the illness, which the family gets over it, but also reveals that one of the boys survived a yearlong battle with spleen cancer not that long ago. The story eventually becomes about the family’s survival, how everyone dealt with these trials when nothing else seemed important. The parents don’t have sex the entire time. The family dog is killed by coyotes in the yard. The illness changes everyone, shatters their faith. So, this is a story about survival, how that changes us all.

I like every story I’ve read in Long Songs for the Quarantined, K.L Cook’s award-winning collection. These stories are about people who have suffered loss, depicting how they survive, or in some cases, don’t, their bodies still there, but having lost so much. This is a good book—all those Spokane Prize winners are—one I enjoyed very much today.

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