December 6, 2020: “War Stories” by Jim Kelly

Happy St. Nicholas Day, Story366!

Our boys put out their stockings last night, and what do you know? They woke up with stockings filled with candy. Our oldest son—who knows what’s going on here—doesn’t really eat candy, and after opening his stocking, he said thank you, put the treat-packed sock down, and probably won’t look for it again. Our younger son, just 7, mowed through the entire score today, picking away at the vast pile until there was nothing left. This included a package of six rolls of Lifesavers, which I think is sixty Lifesavers. Sixty! Who eats that many Lifesavers in one day? The answer to that, I realize, is my kid.

St. Nicholas Day doesn’t get a lot of hype anymore. When I was a kid in Catholic grammar school, we thought about it all the time, always comparing notes that day at school, sharing what we got in our stockings. However, our sons don’t go to Catholic school, so it’s not like everyone’s talking about it; Springfield’s not really a Catholic town, either, and I’m sure that has its effect; today is also Sunday, so it’s not like he went to school and could open a dialogue.

But St. Nicholas Day, and the tradition of hanging a sock out and waking up to candy and toys, is a part of my youth, of my nostaligia, one I’m not willing to let go. I loved this little pre-Christmas teaser, and my boy, the younger one, loves it, too. I did have to explain to him who St. Nicholas was last night, then again today, but hey, it’s the thought that counts. I’m sure St. Nicholas isn’t sweating the details.

For today, I read from Jim Kelly‘s debut collection, Pitchman’s Blues, out in 2018 from Texas Review Press as a winner of its George Garrett Fiction Prize. Kelly is a retired salesman, coming to publication later in his life, which is always awesome and inspiring. I’ve not read his fiction before, so yet again, Story366 finds me another author to admire and enjoy.

There’s a lot of stories in Pitchman’s Blues, and they’re cut into five different titled sections. I read a story or two from each section, not really paying much attention to how the section titles related to the stories, to note. The first story, from “Jumping In,” is “Pandora’s Snap-Top Clutch” This one’s about a kid who’s dumped off at a great aunt and uncle’s house in Oklahoma by his parents, promising to come back in “a day or two.” There, the kids is scared shitless by both, firstly by his aunt and her rusty straight razor, then by his uncle and his tales of Geronimo’s Ghost, whom our hero actually sees. When he’s dumped at another relative’s house later (it’s never explained why the parents do this), a cousin tells him that this is how the great aunt and uncle fuck with everyone, including him and their respective fathers.

“Oklahoma Matters” is told from the perspective of this guy reminiscing about his dad, Old Man, who is an old-school tough guy, bragging about deer he’s shot and guys he’s beat up, years before. Old Man is trying to instill a toughness, or maybe just being a bad guy. Our narrator idolizes him, despite some abusive implications, and some anecdotes that don’t paint the most flattering picture.

From the next section, “Music Lessons,” a guy recalls a Frank Zappa concert he saw at the Ford Auditorium in downtown Detroit back in ’67. My brother is a big Zappa fan—I could never get into him (Zappa, not my brother)—and I think I’ll share this story with him. (Side note: Okay, maybe the section titles do make obvious sense now that I’m typing this all out.)

From “A Citizen’s Duty,” I read “Crowd Control,” about a guy recollecting the Vietnam protests against Nixon and his regime, traveling to Washington for a historical rally. Someone takes things too far, however, implying that Nixon should be killed, which just isn’t what that movement was all about.

“Mountain Time” brings us “The Great Betty,” which starts off being about a prize-winning dairy cow from a small town, peppering the little burg with some flavor. Eventually, the narrator emerges, and the story becomes about a job interview (in that small town), where he flippantly professes an aloof approach to teaching, which oddly scores him the job.

Finally, “Scuffling for Coin” offers our featured story of the day, “War Stories.” This one’s about a man who has had a long day at work, his dogs barking, but has one stop left before he can kick back: He has to deliver an order of groceries to his father.

The problem with this is, our narrator and protagonist doesn’t really like his father. Or, at the very least, he doesn’t like to visit. His father likes to draw him in with old war stories, and sure enough, when he stops by, his dad starts in on stories he’s told hundreds of times before.

Only this time, our protagonist doesn’t let him. Instead, when his father starts regaling, he cuts in and tells the story first, stories mainly about his father’s time in the Army during the Pacific campaign. Instead of letting his father tell the story, he jumps in and finishes it for him, sarcastically and with malice. Dad is not amused—old men love telling their stories—and when our narrator leaves, nothing between them is resolved. In fact, anything going on between the two got much worse.

From there, our guy gets to go home, to his wife and family. In an ironic twist, he engages with his own sons, and lo and behold, he’s relaying some oft-heard stories of his own, garnering a similar reaction that he’d just doled out.

I like all the stories I read from Pitchman’s Blues, Jim Kelly’s debut. Kelly achieves an immediacy with each of his short pieces, thrusting us into his characters’ lives, predicaments, and headspace. I’m glad this book found its way to me, that I spent some time with it.