December 27, 2020: “A Record of Our Debts” by Laura Hendrix Ezell

Happy Sunday, Story366!

My main Christmas gift this year was an air fryer from the boys. It wasn’t a gift I specifically asked for—I didn’t ask for anything—but something we’d talked about in the past as sounding pretty cool, something that one day we would have wanted to have, would think was neat. Those are the kind of things that we might or might not ever acquire one day (we still don’t have a smoker or indoor plumbing, e.g.), and gifts are the most likely way for them to come home. My oldest son, when shopping with the Karen, supposedly called it out, insisted I’d love it. And you know what? He was right.

We made some chicken thighs last night, first messing around with how exactly the thing worked. Once I figure out the buttons and settings, I soaked the thighs in milk, ran them through some panko crumbs, and put them straight into the air fryer. Ten minutes on each side later, they were perfect. Since I’m not eating carbs, I made some naked ones, two, seasoned with a boatload of spices, and those turned out to be divine.

Since, we’ve been looking through our cupboards for anything that could possibly go into an air fryer. Anything that can be heated could go in, we supposed, though we didn’t put in the hot dogs we ate for lunch, nor the eggs that we made for breakfast. Cheeseburgers are on the menu soon, that tube of meat staring me down every time I open the fridge—do we dare stick ground beef in the air fryer? Oh, we dare. I have a feeling they’ll be pretty good. And from there, there’s no telling where we can take this, how far we can fly.

Yesterday, I started revisiting the six winners of the Moon City Short Fiction Award, six days to go in the year, six winners so far, a perfect way to end 366 straight entries on Story366. Up today is our second author, Laura Hendrix Ezell, winner of the 2015 Moon City Short Fiction Award for her collection, A Record of Our Debts. It’s implied, of course, that I very much like all of these winners, having picked and published them for Moon City Press, so will only have good things to say. This will be more of a revisiting—it’s been a few years since I’ve read this book—a revisiting I very much looked forward to.

The opening story, “The Drowning Season,” is about Evie and is a story I’d also accepted for Mid-American Review a few years before coming to Missouri or MCP. Evie lives in a little farm cabin with her sister, Helen, in a somewhat undefined period in the American South. To note, a lot of the stories in this book take place in Abel, what feels like a Depression-era small-town, though Abel is not named in this piece, nor is it an actual town, just Ezell’s construct. In any case, a man named John has been hired on by Helen to help around the house, though Evie doesn’t believe the man is at all handy, let alone necessary. She also snooped into his belongings and found out his name is really Samuel. Helen, fearing old maidhood, doesn’t want to hear it and allows the mysterious stranger to stay at their house. The man ends up driving a wedge between the sisters, Helen growing very ill and Evie feeling conflicted, John/Samuel a polarizing yet exciting force in their existence.

“Mister Visits” is an even sadder story, about Lydee, a young woman living with her father and brother in Abel. The family gets by, it seems, because Lydee’s dad is prostituting her out to a man named Mister, who visits every once in a while. Lydee takes him back to her room, counting the moments until he leaves. In general, Lydee accepts her fate, doesn’t particularly hate her father or her life—she’s more concerned with her brother, Handy, with whom she has a sexual relationship, too (told you it was sad). She’s mostly worried that Handy is going to come in from the fields and find her with Mister, that he might just murder him. Things go from horrible to more horrible when Lydee’s father reveals his true intention: To give Lydee over to Mister, a landowner who could take better care of her, and as an extension, him. There’s no winning situation here, as the “good” end to this story is that Lydee lives happily ever after with her brother, and the “bad” ending is that she forever belongs to the guy who used to rent her out; or maybe that’s reversed. Oh, and did I mention she’s pregnant, doesn’t know whose kid it is, and is cooking up a self-induced abortion?

The title story, “A Record of Our Debts,” is about an unnamed young girl in Abel. The town is going through a serious outbreak of madness and at the core of this madness seems to be our hero’s sister, Selma. The story begins with our protagonist looking out the window and watching Selma dance about, speak in a sort of tongues, and eat at the wood on a log. Her and and her father wonder what to do, Selma getting worse.

In town, our girl runs into Lon Henry, a boy who’s her friend, and the two go to Mrs. Lemon’s store. There, Mrs. Lemon seems to have the madness, too, as she’s just letting everyone take what they want, watching them as they choose their item as Mrs. Lemon watches, then walk out after she refuses payment. Our hero wonders how long this can go on and if Mrs. Lemon is keeping track, a record of their debts, if they’ll ever need to pay her back.

She also finds that people around Abel blame their family, namely Selma, for what’s happened to everyone. She gets back and tells her dad, who considers how this will affect them. In the meantime, the mom in this story starts to lose it, too, and perhaps ironically, Selma slips into a more cogent state. Is this some sort of virus? Is everyone coincidentally going mad at the same time? Or maybe this is magical realism at work, Ezell perhaps summoning something akin to García Màrquez’s amnesia outbreak.

A mob eventually comes for Selma, believing that getting rid of Selma will also dispel Abel’s afflictions. The dad comes out with his shotgun, which doesn’t seem to phase the mob, but does get it to disperse. This is only the calm in the middle of the storm, however, as the mob returns the next day, greater in both number and resolve. Selma has lost herself again, too, not making things any better.

I won’t go any further into this story, leaving the resolution for you to discover. It’s another tale about a young woman who has a lot on her plate, facing some interminable odds while simply trying to survive. Not every story in A Record of Our Debts fits this mold, or takes place in the desperate town of Abel. Laura Hendrix Ezell instills some themes and motifs, though, and while often bordering on macabre—or at least Southern Gothic—I couldn’t put this book down. I remember loving every story five years ago and loving everything I reread today. There’s a mix of magic and history and real humanity here, Hendrix’s approach to storytelling accessible but also gut-wrenching, beautiful but perfectly flawed. I’m so proud to have printed this book, to have brought Laura’s collection into the world. It’s so great—I can’t recommend this one enough.