Saturday, February 15, 2020

Eight Unromantic Short Stories

Yesterday, I posted a playlist for Valentine's Day on another site. Today, I've decided to shatter dreams of romance with the following stories. Enjoy!

Title: After You've Gone
Author: Alice Adams
Where I Read It: Legal Fictions

An attorney attempts to bring some order to her feelings and thoughts after her boyfriend leaves her. She analyzes different areas of her life and assumes a dispassionate attitude about a deeply personal and emotional topic. In her letter to him, she even advocates for his new girlfriend, asking him to be kind to her. The story is worth reading for the performance the main character delivers.

Title: The Connor Girls
Author: Edna O'Brien
Where I Read It: The Love Object

The title refers to a pair of adult sisters who live with their father. In the area of Irish countryside they call home, they're the elites. However, a scandal breaks the family apart when one of the sisters falls in love with a man her father considers unsuitable; she's Protestant, and her lover is Catholic. She leaves home and returns only when her father passes away. The marriage she once hoped for never takes place. For a while she's in the grip of an intense grief and has a drinking problem. But eventually, she settles back into life with her sister. Her heart was broken, her hopes thwarted, but by the story's end she's healing and is also more open to the community around her. You wonder, as much pain as she went through, maybe marriage to the man of her choice would have put her in worse straits? Or maybe she would have been deeply happy. There's no way to know for sure.

The story's narrator is a neighbor of the Connor girls. Her family comes from a lower class, and she has always looked at the Connors from the outside. When she grows up, she chooses to marry outside her parents' wishes. After a period of estrangement, she visits home with her husband and young son. The visit highlights her husband's contempt for her parents, their rural way of life, and yes, for her too. The narrator is deeply alone, wrenched away from her parents' world but in a relationship that isn't loving. She also no longer has a community to call her own. Ultimately, the story doesn't portray marrying against parental wishes as an unquestioned good in all cases. Sometimes it might be the best choice, but the risks are serious, and one might lose a great deal. Should you take the risk then?

Title: The Country Husband
Author: John Cheever
Where I Read It: American Short Stories Since 1945

Cheever is good at writing about middle-aged, upper middle class suburbanites who possess the accepted trappings of an adult life - marriage, children, a job, a lovely home – but if you look more closely, you discover that they are profoundly immature. Something in them remains undeveloped. In this story, a man experiences a shock – he survives an airplane accident – and appears to spiral into a mid-life crisis that he doesn't have the wisdom or maturity to handle. For example, he feels lust for his kids' young babysitter (he thinks of it as love, but it doesn't come across as genuine love), and acts on his feelings in a selfish, nasty way that hurts other people.

Title: The Furnished Room
Author: O. Henry (William Sydney Porter)
Where I Read It: Manhattan Noir 2

A man searches through NYC for a woman he loves. He goes from one derelict boarding house to another in the hopes that someone knows where she is. She works in theater, and her fate is at first unknown. By the end we find out.

The visceral descriptions of miserable places are the most memorable parts of this story.
They trod noiselessly upon a stair carpet that its own loom would have forsworn. It seemed to have become vegetable; to have degenerated in that rank, sunless air to lush lichen or spreading moss that grew in patches to the staircase and was viscid under the foot like organic matter.
Human misery is imprinted on furniture and on the floors and walls. You can feel the presence of former occupants in depressing ways.
One by one, as the characters of a cryptograph become explicit, the little signs left by the furnished room's procession of guests developed a significance. The threadbare space in the rug in front of the dresser told that lovely women had marched in the throng. The tiny finger prints on the wall spoke of little prisoners trying to feel their way to sun and air. A splattered stain, raying like the shadow of a bursting bomb, witnessed where a hurled glass or bottle had splintered with its contents against the wall.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Week in Seven Words #496

By the salty, polluted river, the grass is long and glossy. Purple flowers and soda cans nestle in it.

Worries are better dealt with outdoors. Not in the confines of a familiar room but in a wider space with water, trees, and people.

A caterpillar, small as a piece of macaroni, squiggles on my neck.

A woman is simultaneously playing the violin and hula hooping. Packing her talents together in the hopes of collecting more money in her violin case.

She keeps lowering her book with a sigh. The whoosh of the passing cars distracts her. I've written it off as background noise, like the wind. After she calls attention to it, I pause to listen, and I realize how much noise I accept as a given, just a part of life.

Toy sailboats find their balance on a sheet of dark water.

Rain comes down in thick continuous clots and spatters like white paint on the street.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Week in Seven Words #495

We sit across from each other in a tiny office. Construction noise shatters our conversation.

The water in the fountain is dark and murky. Lily pads float in the basin. Partly a fountain, partly a pond, presided over by the statue of an angel.

The planes, which have been used for war, now look like painted toys displayed in unrelenting sunlight.

Anxiety: small, sharp stones on a stream bed churning in a powerful current. Regret: boulders thundering down a hillside.

Metal chairs beneath branches delicate as bones. Many people are reading, scrolling through websites, or sharing silence with friends. One man is alone and insane. He's ranting about $10 and listening to Elton John and Phil Collins on a small radio.

We push our way through the stuffy, narrow corridors of a ship. What must it have felt and smelled like, powering through the Tropics in days of no deodorant or A/C?

The dog leaps at me and puts her paws up on my legs for a neck massage and chest rub. One guy looking on says that he could use a massage to his neck too.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Five Short Stories Highlighting a Socioeconomic Divide

Title: Enough to Lose
Author: RS Deeren
Where I Read It: Tales of Two Americas

Three months in with Secured Properties, mowing lawns for bank repossessions at ten bucks a pop, and I had inhaled more grass clippings, caked my eyes in more dust, and ridden more backroads than I had known were in Tip County.
The narrator is a man on a financial treadmill that will be going only faster in a post-recession US. At any time he can be flung off. His wife, who has found some dubious work through a multi-level marketing scheme, wants to have a baby. They already gave up a baby to adoption years ago for lack of means to care for him. Now they aren't teenagers anymore, but their financial situation is still precarious. Having a kid is a hopeful step; the narrator is worried that it's unrealistically hopeful.

The narrator's work partner is a gruff man who had "probably been some kind of stupid at some point in his life" and now just wants to get each job done cleanly and quickly with not a minute wasted. During their work, they encounter a man who is still trying to live on his repossessed property; he's desperate not to let it go, to admit that his hope for a home is lost for a good long while (probably permanently). The narrator sees what could happen to him and his wife – the loss of everything they're barely holding onto, the meager chance of having enough money to raise a kid, the lack of well-paying job opportunities, the need to turn into an emotionally closed off machine to make barely enough money. The story wraps the reader in layers of tension.

Title: The Gully
Author: Russell Banks
Where I Read It: Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar

From what I remember, "The Gully" starts out in a very poor neighborhood on an island nation. Three men commit acts of vigilantism. Soon they pool their resources and offer their services in justice (like killing robbers) for a fee. Over time, they make enough money to leave their violent, impoverished neighborhood. They outsource their work to others and extract money from people as they see fit. The story ends with them regarding their old home with contempt, as if they have forgotten where they came from and what they did to leave. How many times has this type of story played out in real life?

Title: The House Behind
Author: Lydia Davis
Where I Read It: The Art of the Story

The two homes in this story could exist anywhere. The one in front is wealthier and more elegant. The one in back is shabbier. A courtyard divides them, where the residents of both homes throw out their trash. It's the one place where they interact. The narrator, who lives in the house in back, says:
“Curiously enough, many pairs of houses in the city suffer from bad relations like ours: there is usually an uneasy truce between the two houses until some incident explodes the situation and it begins deteriorating. The people in the front houses become locked in their cold dignity and the people in the back houses lose confidence, their faces gray with shame.”
Here, the exploding incident is murder.

Some people are illuminated in beautiful prose in this story, but they're never really developed as individuals. They're representatives of different places and classes. Those in the front home react largely as a group, and so do those in the house behind, which strengthens the impression that these relationships and actions will be replicated many times between different sets of strangers. The details will run together and fade, and will anyone care to learn anything or change anything? Each house, front and back, seems to exert a relentless influence on the behavior of its occupants.

Title: The Lesson
Author: Toni Cade Bambara
Where I Read It: American Short Stories Since 1945

At the start of the story, a group of kids in a poor, predominantly black neighborhood in New York City have their own contained world – a certain friend group, places they're familiar with, things they're used to doing. They don't know much about the world beyond, not in a concrete way, until the well-educated Miss Moore takes them on a trip to F.A.O. Schwarz, where the toys are well beyond their means, and where they feel completely out of place.

The main character, Sylvia, doesn't take to this lesson in social and racial divide without disgruntlement or questioning. The field trip to the super-expensive toy store rattles the way she sees herself and her place in the world. What she makes of the trip – how she interprets it and how it will affect her life – isn't clear. She may see herself as neither a warrior nor a victim of circumstance. Her choice at the end, to give more thought to what she has seen, may not be all that Miss Moore intends for her to do, but thinking things over is better than either pretending ignorance or swallowing what you're told without question.

I don't think the lesson Miss Moore delivers is even one lesson. It's a starting point, perhaps an initial spur to get the kids to... do what? Perhaps work hard, think more, gain an education, help enrich their own neighborhoods. Possibly take political collective action at some point. Her approach may also backfire and become a discouraging shock that makes the kids want to ignore what they saw and stick to their familiar turf; they're not exactly receptive to Miss Moore to begin with. One thing I like about the story is that the kids aren't tractable. Their reactions are realistic and individual, including Sylvia's need to consider what she'll make of this new awareness that her world is not just the world of her neighborhood, and that she can cross the boundaries of her neighborhood, though at the price of greater struggle and discomfort.

Title: Morocco Junction 90210
Author: Patt Morrison
Where I Read It: Los Angeles Noir

There are some interesting tidbits about Beverly Hills history in this story, which highlights class divides in a wealthy community. Minerva, the narrator, isn't rich, but her dad worked in security for some of the big movie and TV studios and was well-respected. Through his connections, she has found work helping actors prepare for roles and interviews. She lives on the edge of a glamorous world, a sad world in a number of ways, as many people are desperate to protect damaging secrets and shore up shaky reputations.

Minerva likes to gather information about people – not necessarily for any purpose, nefarious or otherwise, but out of curiosity. After a woman is found dead, Minerva figures out something about the woman's past and the reason she had been selling off her jewelry. The motive of wanting to spare a family from disgrace, and the way residents experience social divisions between old and new Beverly Hills, give the story some echoes of Edith Wharton. The society has its largely unspoken codes – what you can get away with, and what you can't bring yourself to even admit.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Week in Seven Words #494

The branches are flapping in a strong wind, as if the trees are fanning themselves.

The kids are inexperienced executives; the parents are zealous secretaries and social directors.

The male and female hikers break up to urinate in the woods. They're yards apart, forming protective circles around each pee-er.

Because the elevators aren't working, the stairwell echoes with dreadful gasps.

Unresolved trauma will ruin your life, she says.

Their home is Colonial style with a broad, pale face. An American flag is draped over the porch railing. The front door opens to small rooms stuffed with comfortable furniture. Rectangles of light cast by the windows fall short of the photos on the shelves and walls.

Aside from a radio blatting from behind a door, the hallway is silent. Shadows are ganging up on the feeble emergency lights.

Week in Seven Words #493

For their meeting, they settle in a circle on the grass. When the sprinklers go off, they spring up laughing and scamper away with their notebooks and jackets.

The geese hiss at passing dogs and at two teenaged boys who are trying to see how close they can get to the fuzzy juveniles.

The town is asleep in the noon sunshine. I'm not used to places where almost nothing is open on a national holiday, and where a business owner can stick a piece of cardboard on a window to announce a nine-day vacation. One kind restaurant owner, who hasn't yet opened for lunch, lets us use his bathroom. Our own lunch we eat on a bench opposite a sleepy library. (Libraries are never open enough hours.)

The gardens slope down to the cliff's edge, the land patterned with trees, lawns, and flowers that look like brushstrokes. Some of the trees are almost neon green in the sunlight. Others remain dark and subdued. A motorboat cuts a bold white line on the river.

On a path by the river, I spot a TV celebrity and his son. The celebrity is wearing a cap and glasses, but his features are still distinctive enough for recognition. What's different is his voice. He speaks to his child in calm tones, completely different from his frenetic screen persona.

They're seated on the terrace with club sandwiches and country club smiles. Silver and dentures.

The heavy rain shower hits us in a spasm. It's soon over, leaving us with cooler air that feels creamy. The air is scented with everything green.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Two Very Different Short Stories Featuring the Wind

Title: Mistral
Author: Raoul Whitfield
Where I Read It: Hard-Boiled: An Anthology of American Crime Stories

The mistral is a violent wind best known for its effects on Provence in the south of France. The wind may rage for hours at a time. In Raoul Whitfield's story, it mirrors some of the moral chaos in the plot and represents a powerful force that a person can't escape.

The main character is a private detective whose agency has tasked him with finding a criminal on the run. The detective comes to realize that the man he's looking for is marked for death; the people who hired the agency are also criminals, and their purpose is murder. Caught in these dangerous, morally muddy circumstances, the detective realizes he has an opportunity to give his target a warning. Why would he want to help him get away? Maybe there's something honorable about it – giving one criminal a fighting chance against other criminals.

Title: A Windy Day
Author: Janet Frame
Where I Read It: Prizes

The sun is fresh, never left standing or sour, poured out clean on the stones for the dusty-throated wind to lick.
"A Windy Day" is a delightful, fresh, poetic, and unsettling picture of seasonal change. In this case, the arrival of spring. The author doesn't settle for observations of flowers blooming or ice thawing. She makes the changes disconcerting. She takes the familiar and renders it fantastical and topsy-turvy.
The motorcyclist, his knees tight against his mount, surges through the tidal streets, riding a seahorse to the lonely shore.
Reading this piece, you see the world wide-eyed and appreciate how strange it can be. Day-to-day life doesn't have to be ordinary.