December 30, 2020: “Claiming a Body” by Amanda Marbais

Hey there, Story366!

So, here we are, two days to go in the year. Yesterday, I said I’d use these last two days to run down my best of 2020 list for story collections and to pitch my plan for Story366 beyond 2020. I don’t have my list of books together yet, so I that leaves my future plans for this project, for this blog.

I have enjoyed the daily dedication to Story366 this year. Three hundred sixty-five days and books and posts in, I can say that I’ve learned a lot about fiction-writing, having become familiar with a lot of writers’ work, and have gotten to know some of these writers, too, via social media. I think I’ve done a service to myself, firstly, then a service to each one of these writers, and mostly, a service to the art of short stories in general. Short stories are my life, my love, my vocation, and pulling off a year like 2020 has been rewarding in ways I can’t describe or even realize yet.

That said, I can’t ever do another full year again. In 2016, when I started this idea, I had 250 books on my shelf, waiting to be read and written about. A few trips to used bookstores and some generosity from writers and especially presses allowed me to finish the year without much worry about where the books were going to come from. I spent maybe a few hundred dollars of my own money, but most of that was for new-release hardcovers that I wanted to feature right when they came out.

This year, I started with only about sixty books, which is a mere two months’ worth of books. Again, presses were very generous, but for the most part, I filled in over two hundred books out of my own pocket, mostly through online used sales. I found some ninety-nine-cent books, but eventually, ran out of those. By November, I was spending over ten dollars per book between the cost and shipping, which drained funds my available funds rather quickly. Financially, doing another full year of entries—366—just can’t happen, not unless I get rich or figure out a way to procure all those books.

More than the money, however, is the time. It takes me two hours, minimum, to do one of these posts every day. I’ll never say that isn’t time well spent, as it’s reading stories and that’s a great use of my time. I’ve become a better writer, a better essayist, too, writing a thousand or so words a day. But when I think about it, I probably need to put those two to three hours every day into something else now. I need to write more of my own work. I need to spend more time on my teaching and on Moon City Press. Those are just the professional aspects, too: I also need to spend more time with my wife and kids and perhaps even develop something of a social life; I haven’t been out with a “friend,” nor have I done anything strictly social (that’s not family-related), in maybe five years. As much as I like spending two or three hours every day on short stories, I need that time for other things.

Some days I’d also like to do nothing, to not start reading a book at nine at night and race to finish the post before midnight. Maybe I could spend that time watching TV, playing a video game, or going to sleep early. It’s nice to have projects and be ambitious, but maybe I could get my blood pressure down if I just sat around and didn’t think all the time. Eh?

To be clear, I will continue to post at Story366. When someone sends me a book (keep sending me books!), I’ll cover it here. When a friend or close colleague has a book come out, I’ll track it down and Story366 it right up. When a major author releases a book, I’ll probably jump on board with it, make sure I get my hands on a copy. I’ve thought about doing a post once a week—which I could handle—but I don’t think I want to make any promises, set myself up for anything remotely regular. What if I’m busy one week, on a vacation, or whatever? The cool thing about only doing a post whenever I feel like it—like I did in 2017-2019—is that I’m not a slave to any schedule or pledge. This will make the project a lot more manageable, and as a result, more enjoyable, too.

I’ll probably do entries for Story366 as long as I can read and type, or until someone takes this platform away from me. Faithful readers, please keep the suggestions coming, keep reading the entries, keep spreading the word. I’ll be here. Just not every day.

For today’s entry, I’m covering the next book in the series of Moon City Short Fiction Award winners, using those six books to inhabit my last six slots of the year. I of course chose and published these books (in case you didn’t know that), so this is a revisit, me wanting to list those collections among the annals of Story366, and more than anything, to simply reacquaint myself with books I know I love. Amanda Marbais was the fifth winner of the contest, taking home the prize in the 2018 Moon City Short Fiction Award for Claiming a Body, which Moon City published in 2019. Like with the previous few entries, I was very aware of Marbais’ work before this, having published one of the stories in Moon City Review a couple of years prior (and another since), also choosing Claming a Body as a finalist and then a runner-up in the two previous contests. Plus, I just knew her from Chicago, from that very vivid and amazing writing scene. I have always loved and believed in this book and it’s such a pleasure to read it again—for the first time in over a year—and to work with Amanda these last couple of years, to get to know her and her work so intimately.

“Claiming a Body” is the lead and title story of Marbais’ book, what I’ll focus on today. This story’s about a unnamed little family—known as “the woman,” “the boyfriend,” and “the boy”—Chicago city folk who go camping one night. The woman, who’s our protagonist, and her boyfriend have been hot into sex lately, having it often and making it kinky. They want to do it in the tent, so they send the boy—the woman’s son—off with a can of bear spray and go on a hike. When the boy comes back, obviously shaken, they’re relieved to find that he was not attacked by a bear. Instead, he found a dead body out in the woods.

The boyfriend goes to investigate and realizes the man has been recently beaten to death with a flashlight—as in like just now—meaning the boy is probably lucky to be alive. The sad thing is, seeing this dead man, so badly maligned with wounds, really screws the kid up. He becomes obsessed with death and can’t sleep alone or in his room anymore. So, it’s kind of what you think would happen to a little kid who stumbles upon a grizzly murder scene. That’s a lot to unpack.

At the same time, the woman also deals with the boyfriend. Their sexcapades continue—they have serious conversations while he’s taking off her handcuffs—but they differ in philosophies on how to make the boy better. Meanwhile, the boy has taken to the lingo of the investigating police and also writes a condolence letter to the dead man’s family. They write the boy back, offering one of the man’s belt buckles, which the boy wears all the time.

The kid also acts out, getting into trouble at school, taking back, that sort of thing. He is also nearly hit by a truck, and when the man in the truck gets out to help him, the boy throws his bike over an overpass. The driver shows up one afternoon with the kid in his front seat and the destroyed bike in the back, leering at the woman for letting her son—who’s obviously disturbed—ride his bike around town. Perhaps this is a kid who shouldn’t be sent out by himself, especially so the woman and her boyfriend can play hide-the-parental-responsibility.

Side bar 1: I just had a weird thought, something I’ve not considered before: Did the kid kill the guy? And has that been obvious to everyone but me?!

This story sets a good tone for the book, as there are real bodies to be claimed, some of them dead, some of them still alive. It goes beyond that, but I’ll save that theory for the wrap-up.

“Werewolf DNA” is about a woman named Nico (not her real name, but a nickname given to her by her boss) who is an office manager for a real estate company that’s not only about to go under, but its bosses are likely headed to jail. Her boss is a human id, this guy named Julian who uses the cover of “entertaining clients” as an excuse to dip into the till, frequent strip clubs, and drink himself into a fleshy pickle juice. Nico and everyone in the office can sense what’s going on, but no one knows how to handle it. Nico is on the verge of either quitting or going to the cops, but she needs the job and the money. This is why she puts up with Julian and his bullshit, though there’s really not a light at the end of any tunnel for her here. Did I mention she’s spent a fortune on fertilization drugs, desperately trying to get pregnant?

“The Calumet” is about a woman named Liz. Liz is involved in some shady shit, dealing with some shady people. There’s a real en medias res feel to this one, as the story begins right as Liz and her boyfriend, Rich, are about to scam a friend of theirs, Janet, out of a ton of meth, worth seventy-five grand. They are supposed to buy it from Janet for fifteen, then turn it around for a huge profit, unbeknownst to Janet, a coked-up stripper who’s just one rung lower on the pathetic ladder than they are. There’s a guy named Derrick involved, too—Liz has dated/slept with both him and Rich, sometimes at the same time—and their big plan is to get the drugs from Janet, not give her anything close to fifteen grand, maybe nothing. Oh, and all of this is supposed to go down at a Gary, Indiana, strip club, where Janet dances. Before the big exchange, Liz makes a plan to take most of the money for herself and skip out on Rich and Derrick. Rich and Derrick, and a surprise third party, have other ideas, though, proving that age-old theory about ripping your friends off for their meth in Gary in the parking lot of a strip club: Don’t do it.

Side bar 2: “The Calumet” is a reference to a river that flows south out of Lake Michigan, the place where this story ultimately ends. One of its tributaries, the Little Calumet, bifurcates the two towns I grew up in, Calumet City and Lansing. And now you know that.

Like with every Moon City contest winner this week, I’ve had a delightful time revisiting Amanda Marbais’ Claiming a Body today, the fifth short story collection I accepted, edited, and published for Moon City Press. Amanda has a soft spot for desperation, the characters in her stories finding themselves in dire straights, often not of their own making (but sometimes), sending them into deep logistical and moral quandaries. These are people who have known loss, have tried to make their lives better, but the universes the live in have other plans. I noted earlier that the title of this book, “Claing a Body,” has to do with literal bodies, both dead and alive, but after rereading most of this book today, I think it refers to the protagonists themselves, everyone just wanting theirs, for their existence to be okay, to claim themselves for the sake of themselves, which turns out to be the real trick. These are harrowing tales, populated by deeply drawn, self-conscious people, an intense and character-driven read. I love this book even more today than I did before, seeing it in a whole new light.

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