December 1, 2020: “Camel Light” by Keith Lee Morris

Welcome to a Tuesday, Story366!

December has arrived! We’re in the last month of 2020, which hasn’t been a good year for most of us, everyone more than ready to see if we can fair better in 2021. All the experts say that we’re heading into the peak point of this pandemic, that’ll probably get worse before it gets better. It’s not like the cure is going to drop at midnight on New Year’s, meaning 2021 is going to have its share of bad days, too. But symbolically, won’t it feel like we’re in the final stretch once the ball drops? Things look good, we’re told, but good is five months away, at a minimum. I myself keep telling people we’re on the back half of this. Sometimes you just have to be affirming and encouraging, especially leading into the holidays. I don’t know what’s going to happen, when this vaccine will be available, but I know this: I can see a light at the end of this tunnel, and for today, December 1, that’s enough.

Today’s post led me to Keith Lee Morris‘ collection, Call It What You Want, out in 2010 from Tin House Books. When I got ahold of this book, I had to doublecheck that I hadn’t covered it or Morris’ other collection already, because it seems like I certainly would have by now. But no, for whatever reason, I’ve not featured Morris here, not until today. I’m not sure why that is, as I’ve been a fan of Morris’ work for a while, always enjoying the stories I’ve read in journals over the years. As I kick off this last month of Story366, I’m really glad to finally add him to the list, and of course, to have read his book today.

I could have easily featured any of the stories I read from Call It What You Want today, as all of them are good stories, stories with which I felt a small affinity. So, “Camel Light” is more of a random choice. This one’s about Rick Steuben, who has an hour alone in his house for the first time since he can remember. He thinks of all kinds of big plans, some of them monumental undertakings, but settles on sitting quietly in his chair, letting the time pass that way.

That is until he spies something under his dishwasher from across the room. He moves in to investigate and finds a cigarette, a Camel Light, just sitting there. Rick and his wife, Maggie, quit sixteen years ago, they haven’t had guests over in weeks, and his kids, a teen and a tween, seem unlikely suspects. So where did the cigarette come from?

Morris takes Rick on an introspective journey through his memories and fears, as Rick begins to analyze the possibility of each suspect more deeply. April, his fifteen-year-old daughter, doesn’t seem that likely, but as Ricks delves deeper into his thoughts, April becomes not only a possibility, but a likely perpetrator. She’s a teenager, after all, and her grades have been slipping, and she’s hanging around with a different crowd, etc.

Only Rick takes this journey with Austin, too, just eleven, but perhaps starting early. He’s definitely been in trouble in school, plus he’s a boy. It’s probably Austin, Rick figures.

By the time Rick starts contemplating Maggie, it’s pretty obvious what Morris is going, what kind of character he’s building in Rick. Rick can’t believe that Maggie would start smoking again, after all these years, so instead, his fantasizing brings in a third party, Clifton Moody, who Maggie has obviously been having an affair with. Rick tortures himself by letting this entire scenario play out in his head, from the moment Maggie and Clifton met, right up to the point of Clifton is in his house—to have sex with Maggie—dropping his cigarette in the kitchen.

So who really left the cigarette on the ground? And now that Rick has got himself all lathered up over his wife’s infidelity and his kids’ general nogoodness, what’s he going to do with Maggie’s pulling into the driveway? I won’t reveal how this story ends, as you’ll have to read it for yourself.

“Harmonica” is about Taylor Rue, a guy who walks out of a convenience store with a pack of smokes, heads down an alley toward home, and is run into by a guy on a motorcycle who pulls over and comes at Taylor. The guy wants a smoke, but is getting all up in Taylor’s face, so closely and aggressively, Taylor defends himself by putting his cherry right in the guy’s eye. To make sure the guy doesn’t get up, Taylor kicks him in the throat. The guy’s buddy pulls right up to the pair and wants some revenge, but Taylor gets away. The men give chase, but Taylor eludes them enough to circle back and steal the guy’s motorcycle. From there, he drives into town, where he abandons the bike in a parking lot and head’s into one of his old haunts. Inside, he watches an impressive act with a ridiculously good harmonica player. That musician turns out to be an old buddy of his from high school. They have a drink, and at the end of the night, the guy gives Taylor a harmonica, for old time’s sake. It’s too bad, then, when those two guys from before start following him, and that he can’t outrun him on the stolen bike.

“A Desert Island Romance” features Roger and Sharon, two people who find themselves stranded on a desert island. Both of them have someone back in the real world—Roger a fiancé and Mary a husband—but quickly resign themselves to the island for the rest of their lives and a begin a passionate affair. As the months go on, however, the couple grows apart, and one day, they start pretending they’re back in their regular lives, particularly in the French Quarter, where Roger used to work as a bartender. These fantasies get so intricate, it’s actually sad when Sharon breaks up with Roger, via a letter. There are more letters, discussing a reunion, but Sharon also acknowledges that they’re still on the island, not all that far from each other, but still drifting apart.

I’ve been a fan of Keith Lee Morris’ fiction for a long time, so it was great to read from Call It What You Want today. Morris’ men are average-seeming guys thrust into abnormal situations, their thoughts and their actions leading them into precarious jams, both real and imagined. These are well defined, lasting characters, making Morris’ book indispensable, the work of a master storyteller.

One thought on “December 1, 2020: “Camel Light” by Keith Lee Morris

  1. Pingback: December 2, 2020: “That Screaming Silence” by Susan E. Lloy – Story366

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