Welcome to Monday, Story366!
I’ve not watched a lot of college football lately, especially this year. I have mixed feelings about college football existing tin 2020—too many positive COVID cases, undetermined long-term effects, too many resources going toward this endeavor—and generally would have been fine with them taking a year off. But that’s not my hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, not my professional career hanging in the balance. I’ve noted a couple of scores, have wished the teams root for well. Otherwise, I’ve not paid attention.
Then I saw one story this past week that made me take another look. This has been a crazy year, some conferences playing all their games, some playing half, and teams everywhere having to cancel games because of positive COVID-19 tests. All of that has left a mess atop the college football rankings and especially the playoff considerations. Right now, the usual suspects are in the top four and will likely stay that way. However, a few teams from non-power-5 conferences have posted undefeated seasons, playing full schedules. It’s fun to root for these underdogs, but nobody who actually decides this sort of thing will allow Coastal Carolina or Marshall in the championship game instead of Alabama or Ohio State. Part of me says it’s unfair to not give these smaller teams a shot, while another part of me says the best four teams should make the playoffs. Nobody thinks an undefeated BYU team is better than a 10-1 Clemson team, probably not even BYU.
Yet, two of these teams, BYU and Coastal Carolina, did something fun and sensible this past weekend: They played each other. Both teams were 10-0 going in, and both teams, because their scheduled opponents had canceled because of COVID, suddenly had open schedules. On Thursday morning, when they all woke up, the players and coaches on these teams thought they were going to be off on Saturday. By the end of the day, their people had arranged for these two 10-0 opponents—lingering in the bottom half of the playoff rankings—to play each other. One of them would strengthen their resumé for a playoff run, while the other would know they at least had a shot. They played, Coastal Carolina won in probably the closest, best college football game of the year, and now the Chanticleers are 11-0.
Will they make the playoff now? No. Not even close. But that’s not the point.
My point is that this just made so much sense, it’s a miracle that it happened. Think back to all those years of disputed championships, when two different teams were named National Champion, depending on who you asked. 1997, for example, had Michigan and Nebraska both go undefeated, and both claimed to be the champs. The sports world argued about it, and fans, I’m sure, still do. But why didn’t they just play? NCAA rules, they’d say. Contracts with companies and bowl games. Too hard on the players, who needed to focus on their academics. Right, right, right. What it came down to is, neither wanted to give up their half-claim on the title, too much at risk, so they didn’t do it. They had at least some glory, so why trade that?
That’s what I love about the BYU-Coastal Carolina game this past weekend. It was possible, it was a good idea, so it happened. And it was a great game, CCU scoring a touchdown on their last drive to win by two, time expiring. I didn’t watch—I hadn’t known it existed until the next day—but I just love the idea of this, the why not? attitude. Sports takes itself so seriously, which often works in its favor, but this spontaneous decision and execution made me think someone has some damn sense.
For today’s post I read from Erin Flanagan‘s 2013 collection, It’s Not Going to Kill You, and Other Stories, out from Bison Books as part of the University of Nebraska Press‘s Flyover Fiction Series. I’m psyched about featuring Flanagan’s work here today as I never have before, she’s a great story writer, and I’ve known her for a while, dating back to her Prairie Schooner days, when she was their managing editor and we sat on some panels at AWP together. So, let’s talk some Erin Flanagan.
The title story, “It’s Not Going to Kill You,” is up first. This one’s about Candace, a single mom who returns to her hometown when her mom, Laurel, has a fall. Candace’s father had died the year before and she’d meant to visit more often, but just never did, finalizing a divorce and raising her son, Wally, in the Chicago suburbs. The story begins with Candace satiating her mother by going with her to New Year’s Day mass (that’s a holy day of obligation, mind you), but also irking her further by not wanting to receive Communion. Candace relents, setting the tone for their relationship and the story.
Flanagan has Candace revisit a lot of her old haunts, Wally sleeping in her childhood bed, the lot of them eating at the same restaurants that have always been there, folks from town recognizing her and saying hello. Most of Candace’s energy, however, is exerted with Laurel, trying to be a good daughter, but hating her mother’s nagging and nitpicking and judging.
Candace escapes to one of the two bars that have always been in town. There she runs into Keith Danvers, a redheaded guy who used to bully Candace, K through 12. Keith’s son actually bit Wally in the kid room at church that morning—like father, like son—but Keith is there, apologizing, offering a beer. Candace is resistant at first, but after a few drinks, softens up. The two exchange catch-up stories—Keith’s divorced, too—and soon they’re in Keith’s pick-up, making out in Laurel’s driveway. Candace is not only revisiting her hometown, but acting like a high school kid, though a warped version of that existence where her bully feels her up.
Soon, Laurel decides to drop a couple of bombs on Candace, during a period when they’re actually getting along. Firstly, she’d fallen months prior, not recently, but didn’t tell Candace when it’d happened. She’d lured her to Nebraska now because she’s decided to sell the farm and the farmhouse. Candace can’t believe it—she’s been all nostalgic for the place during her visit—but Laurel’s already bought a duplex in town. The farm is still in the family, and all of a sudden, Candace has a thought: She could live at the farm with Wally, come home!
I don’t want to reveal how Flanagan ends this story, but I will say that I like this fickle character, Candace, how she doesn’t want to go home, doesn’t want to even speak to her mother, but once there, can’t bring herself to leave. It’s like she’s settling into the life—in just a few days—she would have had if she’d never gone. I like this conflict, this contradiction of character, Candace confused and unhappy in general. Kind of reminds me of me, how easy it is to fall into home when I’m home, then how easy it is to forget once I’m gone.
“The Good Neighbor” is about a high school algebra teacher named Mr. Dalton whose next-door neighbor, Mary, knocks on his door in a panic, needing a ride to the hospital. Her grandson, Josh, has hit a man with his car, killing him, sending Josh to the ER in an ambulance. Mary doesn’t trust herself driving, so Mr. Dalton drives her, then sits with her in the waiting room while she awaits entrance to her grandson. As the story moves on, Mary’s ulterior motives are revealed, as she wants Mr. Dalton to act as a father figure to Josh, whose parents took jobs out east, leaving their son to finish out high school with Grandma. Josh was Mr. Dalton’s student, and in fact, they’ve had some adversarial run-ins. Dalton is game to at least talk to the boy in the recovery room. We find that Dalton got a girl pregnant, over twenty years prior, but never met the kid, never was a part of his or her life. Is Josh an opportunity to silence those demons? Probably not, but Dalton can still be the good neighbor, especially now, Josh in so much trouble for, you know, killing a guy.
Sam is the protagonist of “The Democrat in Nebraska.” He and his wife, Jenny, attend a Halloween party at the house of Nebraska’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate, for whom Jenny works. The party has a political theme, meaning Jenny is dressed in a bloody Jackie O costume and Sam is dressed as JFK, complete with bullet hole in his head. Is that a metaphor for the story? Of course it is! But anyway, Sam goes to this party, not really wanting to, and meets the hopeful governor, a charismatic older guy who has no chance of winning, being a democrat in Nebraska. Soon, it’s pretty obvious Jenny is having an affair with this man, but instead of making a more typical scene, Sam takes the stage during the party-ending speech, grabbing the microphone from the politician’s hand, and doing something that’s too awesome and clever for me to reveal here.
I very much enjoyed my time with Erin Flanagan’s 2013 collection, It’s Not Going to Kill You. These are delightfully engaging stories about real people who find themselves at the crossroads of their lives, in tricky predicaments, Flanagan able to capture the right characters, in the right moments, to make every story compelling, important, and easy to empathize with. Great stories here, from a talented author.