The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Davenports and Ottomans” by Stefanie Freele

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Throughout our youth we’re hard-wired to look to the adults in our lives for ideas of who we want to be. Who we are, though, often seeks to establish itself in spite of those desires. Stefanie Freele’s flash fiction piece “Davenports and Ottomans” (Tahoma Literary Review Vol. 2, No. 1) explores this tension through a young protagonist at a party she can’t wait to leave.

When we meet Maribel, she’s uncomfortably dressed and on her best behavior at a family get-together, in a house with stairs that “smell like mold and rain, a confining smell.” She’s not just confined by the smell. “She hates these ill-fitting tights, the crinkly dress, the stiff polished shoes, and her mother for making her wear all of this nonsense.”

Then there’s the rules. Great Aunt Agnes has dishes of candy on the shelf, but Maribel’s not allowed to have them. But notice how Freele sneaks in an impulse that nicely contrasts with Maribel’s desire to disobey her great aunt.

“Quite badly she wants to touch the wrapped candies and line them up in groups of color or in rows of big to little. She wants to unwrap one of each color and shape, sniff them and make a line from tastiest to yuckiest.”

Maribel wants what she can’t have, but notice what she wants to do with them: put them in order…a different order than her great aunt had them, but an order nonetheless. We get the sense that though she may hate what her mother and great aunt are putting her through now, Maribel might not be as different from them as she might at the moment feel.

The contrasts continue, as we discover who’s not invited to this party: her aunt Vickie, who after a Thanksgiving dinner “fell asleep in their front yard, right by the mailbox, in the snow, and Maribel’s mom and dad had to carry her in after a neighbor called…” The reality behind what most likely happened – Aunt Vickie passing out – are lost on young Maribel. She imagines how wonderful it might be to sleep in the snow.

“She often considers building her own bed in a snow bank and if she wore her snowsuit, the purple mittens and her favorite boots, she discerns that she’d be warm enough to spend the entire night.”

Again, Freele juxtaposes the urge to step out of the ordered world Aunt Vickie feels free to break, but in doing so, that urge is accompanied by other, much less reckless desires. She wants to sleep in the snow, but while wearing her choice mittens and boots, and she’s planning ahead, concerned with her comfort throughout the cold night.

As the story careens to a close, the question at hand is one of identity. Maribel is presented with role models. Who will she align with? Aunt Vickie? Her mother? Great Aunt Agnes?

“If the room gets any warmer, Mirabel is certain she will rip off the tights and spring out into the snow before someone grabs her little wrist and says sit down. Although she is constraining herself with an effort she wasn’t even aware she had, an effort that seems inhumanly colossal, it is becoming more and more impossible to keep her body still and quiet, like a dusty reliable piece of furniture.”

She’s still at the party, she’s discovering more and more how much she can stand, but at the same time, she can’t wait to get out. Freele presents Mirabel as unknowingly stuck between her elders—it’s easy to imagine that these same competing feelings will plague her for the rest of her life. We’re all a mess of desires. Somewhere in the middle, Maribel may not find peace, but perhaps she’ll find herself.

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Day Trip” by Noelle Catharine Allen

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There’s a wonderful history of short stories where a character’s physical ills work as a metaphor representing larger problems, both personal and societal. For instance, in Julio Cortázar’s “Letter to a Lady in Paris,” the protagonist regularly vomits live rabbits, a reality we come to realize not only provides the reasons why an apartment has been destroyed, but an explanation for why the protagonist’s life has spiraled. In Noelle Catharine Allen’s “Day Trip” (Hunger Mountain 19), we meet a character who also regularly vomits live rabbits, but for reasons very different from the story to which it owes its literary conceit.

We begin when the protagonist Noelle and her son, Matthew, get stuck in a massive traffic jam outside of D.C. She takes stock of her belongings, among them a syringe. “I sent up a thank you prayer—to whatever deities I didn’t believe in—for the syringe…I always take a backup syringe in case something goes wrong with the injection.” It’s clear she’s ailing, but unlike Cortázar—who reveals the situation quickly—Allen chooses to keep the nature of her protagonist’s illness secret from the reader.

Allen does drop subtle hints over the next few pages, as the traffic jam stretches out over multiple days. “I hadn’t missed an injection in almost a year, so it was possible I might be OK…but if the rabbits came, I’d rather they did during the night.” Rabbits? we wonder. Is that some kind of metaphor? Readers familiar with Cortázar might hazard guess at her illness, especially after the protagonist makes a brief reference another of Cortázar’s stories, “How to Wind a Watch.” But the setting of the stories couldn’t be more different—traffic jam vs. apartment—and the causes of the protagonist’s illness diverge as well.Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Miniature Lives of the Saints” by Anthony Wallace

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Physical beauty is like an innate talent or gift in that it can provide wonderful opportunities to its possessor that aren’t as easily available to others, if at all. But every blessing can also be a curse. In “Miniature Lives of the Saints” by Anthony Wallace (Missouri Review 38:1) we meet a protagonist struggling with a beauty that has come to both define her and hold her captive.

Wallace reveals his protagonist’s struggle with identity early on. Though her given name was Kathleen, “Everybody knew her as Gretchen…That was just what her brother Tommy called her—had called her one time when they were teenagers—and it had stuck.”

Her whole life she’s taken what she’s been given and hasn’t sought out more…and those who are physically attractive are offered a lot. In the present, though she knows her looks could easily help her find her better work, she remains behind the counter of a CVS, and lives in an apartment above her mother’s restaurant. Meanwhile, her husband is in jail, and her brother’s friends hit on her incessantly—while Tommy just laughs.

“Yeah Tommy, that’s real funny, your sister is truly a remarkable piece of ass, the one thing in this world she still had…she was a strikingly beautiful woman. Only men smart enough and brave enough to become convicted felons were good enough for this raven-haired beauty!”

Notice what fuels the self-loathing of the last line: the perceived irony of her beauty. She’s not comfortable with her looks, but at the same time goes to great lengths to preserve them. Wallace tells us that she wears expensive, stylish boots even though they are painful to wear and she feels stupid in them. Like her looks, “The boots were perfect in every way, except they just didn’t fit.”

At an AA meeting she regularly attends, Gretchen deftly judges the other attendees based on her own preoccupation: appearance. But compared to their stories, hers is lacking when it comes to a sense of purpose. Notice a few of the phrases she uses to describe her life when it’s her turn to share: “That’s where we always ended up.”; “I just fell into life with him.”; “I didn’t really want to do that, but I ended up doing it anyway. I just drifted into it.” The verbs are almost all passive, outlining her resignation to the will of others.

Prodigies, whether in music, sports, spelling—or auctioneering—notoriously struggle with identity later in life. Who am I outside of my gifts and talents? Wallace presents physical beauty as justly capable of causing those problems.

So what does Gretchen do? After the AA meeting. she visits a local pizza parlor, and while there, adopts a prayer of Saint Brigid—a beauty herself—and begins destroying the boots.

“`Make me ugly,’ she said, and she began stepping on her boots, kicking and gouging at them, one with the other. `Make me ugly,’ she said a second time under her breath. She dug the heel of her right boot into the top of her left until she felt the leather begin to tear. `It’s all I’m asking.’”

We live in a culture that either associates being physically attractive with happiness and fulfillment, or dismisses it as shallow, meaningless, and only skin deep. Wallace gives us another narrative. Physical beauty is something whose power must be reckoned with. To be content and beautiful is far more difficult than it might appear.

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Thank You For the _______” by Becky Adnot-Haynes

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Some stories get their complexity from the weaving of plot twists, some from the myriad of possible outcomes facing a character making a tough decision. Some—Raymond Carver’s “Fat” for instance—gain their complexity by the layering of different stories on top of each other. Becky Adnot-Haynes, in “Thank You For the ________” (Hobart 15), is one of the latter. Throughout, her protagonist uses a series of seemingly unrelated stories to try to get at an elusive truth that she just can’t explain, creating a collage of images that add up to a cohesive whole.

We meet the protagonist in a motel room she’s sharing with her husband because bedbugs have infested their home. They’re watching a show on cable in which “a woman … donates her kidney to her mother and then asks for it back when she finds out she was adopted.” While her husband says that that’s only fair, the protagonist argues that you can’t take that kind of gift back, even if you wouldn’t have made that decision if you knew what you know now.

“They can’t just go their separate ways,” I say.
“It’s the thought that counts,” he says, “is basically what you’re saying.”
“No,” I say. “That’s not what I’m saying at all.”

From this misunderstanding springs the second attempt at explaining why taking the kidney back isn’t feasible. She begins telling a story from her childhood about giving a gift of facial cream to a friend who had bad skin—and not realizing until after she’d given away the gift how inappropriate it was. But instead of tying this into the original argument—the ethics of gift-giving—Adnot-Haynes leaves the thread dangling. The protagonist seems to forget the original line of thought. They begin talking over the movie about other matters and much like the movie they are watching, “the plot has dwindled.”Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “The Know-It-All” by Jeff Spitzer

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Some narrators announce their unreliability in the opening sentences of a short story (see Matt Sumell’s “All Lateral”), and in this way their skewed vision of the world serves as a stylistic lead, drawing readers in. In “The Know-It-All,” from the latest New Ohio Review, Jeff Spitzer creates a narrator whose reliability is revealed slowly, aiding the development of a satire as hilarious as it is terrifying.

We meet this narrator as he’s debating with his wife whether to attend a New Year’s Eve party with his co-workers, whom he considers “…fellow academics, the least redeemable bores in human society…” But the real reason he doesn’t want to go is Charlotte Roon, a wildly successful professor with a penchant for lording it over her colleagues. We discover that at the same party, two years ago, she’d shamed the narrator, who drunkenly quoted a stanza to Whittier.

“A surprised silence. People stared oddly in my direction as I halted, my glass poised before me.

‘Whitman,’ said Charlotte Roon.

‘Pardon?’

‘Whitman wrote it. Whittier could never have written it.’”Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Dark Season” by Maya Sonenberg

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Over the last few decades, it has become more and more common to find mythical narratives such as fairy tales alongside realist fiction in academic and mainstream literary journals and magazines. More publications have also opened up to stories that blend storytelling elements that previously were dismissed as “genre” into the style du jour, realism. Maya Sonenberg, in her story, “Dark Season,” from the latest issue of the Pacifica Literary Review, does a masterful job of weaving together elements of both fairy tales and realism in order to create a new, hybrid reality that in ways feels more true to contemporary life than perhaps either style could aspire to on its own.

When we meet the protagonist—under a section subtitled, “The Dungeon”—he is referred to only as “the boy” and his father as “the king.” Not naming characters is an accepted technique of fables and fairy tales, and we’d be firmly in that mythical tradition, except that woven into these approaches to characterization and storytelling are contemporary details, which push the story elsewhere:

At recess, he kicked a ball around the school yard with his buddies and when it found the back of the net, he shouted, ‘GOOOOAAAAAAL,’ the way he heard the announcers do on the Spanish language soccer broadcasts he listened to at night. He didn’t know where the voices came from…His father, the king…sometimes told him of such places, even claimed to have come from one himself.

The play-by-play reference situates us firmly into contemporary life through content—soccer—as well as style—the spelling and capitalization of the announcer’s cry. Where characters referred to simply as “the boy” and “the king” invite the whole tradition of fairy tales to help provide their characterizations, the soccer descriptions draw their power from the their relation to the present milieu.Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Anna George” by Melissa Goodrich

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The traditional short story’s primary building blocks depend heavily on logic. A character’s desire meets with a series of escalating obstacles until finally a climax is reached and that desire is fulfilled (or not) in a satisfying, plausible way. Melissa Goodrich’s “Anna George” (Passages North, Issue 36) flows far more associatively through its title character’s plight; rather than escalating to a climax, the story weaves together and then unravels.

Goodrich begins with a statement that immediately undoes the reader’s expectations of a traditional story. “Your parents go on a trip overseas and your mother comes back as an orange and your father doesn’t come back at all.” This is the stuff of the real world—parents, trip overseas, orange—but the latter isn’t fulfilling its typical function. The driving question isn’t “will the character get what she wants,” but instead, “Is her mother actually an orange? Where is her father? What is he? What is happening here?” The mystery resides, to a large extent, in the nature of the story itself.

Like in Marie Helene-Bertino’s Edna in Rain (where she normalizes the literal raining of human beings with conventional detailing), Goodrich humorously normalizes the orange-as-mother situation:

“At night, you and your orange watch TV together, and you rub the orange at its nub to comfort it, and you carry it in your hands to bed, and you spritz it with water, and lay it in a cooler, arranging an ice chip beneath its head, and your mother in this way sleeps.”

Months pass by in between Anna George and the mother/orange in summary—time passing being another form of normalization—and slowly the original questions of how this story works begins to feel settled. Her mother actually is and orange, we think, and when a ghost is introduced, one that “…tails you like forests follow rain…” it stands to reason that that ghost is her father, as we’ve known he’s been missing since that opening sentence.

But before the story—mystery on the verge of being revealed—can settle comfortably into the impending resolution, Goodrich dodges it by stating our suspicions bluntly. “The ghost has been there for a while now, since an orange came home from vacation instead of your mother: you can guess what it represents.” By stating the symbolism outright, she steals the power of the metaphor of her loss and also the impetus of Anna’s grief, and with it any satisfaction the reader might have had figuring it out.

Goodrich unmoors us, with the purpose of preparing for her next move: subverting the narrator. Now, halfway through the story, she introduces another character, one that has with no previous ties or connection to the story so far. The character is an “old man in a bar in New Orleans” who “writes down everything for the ghost to do and then the ghost does it in real life, following you around like hibiscus follows the sun,” and also dictates Anna George’s action. Instead of propelling forward, Goodrich’s story changes direction completely. It’s beginning to unravel.

As it does so, momentum builds. Anna George peels the orange and begins eating it. We’re told that one seed she finds inside is the mother and the other is just a seed. It’s an associative move that both mirrors the unraveling and also openly defies the logic set forth earlier in the story. The author is no longer the author. The orange is not longer the mother. Everything is shifting.

As Goodrich faces Anna’s grief more directly, the potential meaning behind the images become more elusive:

“They say grief takes seven forms, some foggy or antlered, some idle as stovetops on low heat, some like a letter you can’t read because your eyes have turned to stars, and everything you look at imprints with a tooth of light.”

This collage of disparate images serves to show that now even the logic of patterns has been left behind. Then she subverts the author once again: “The man writing this ghost story knows nothing about how it (the story) works.”

In the end, there is no more making sense of the grief. Goodrich builds each element of this story only to then tear it down, until we’re left with only the bare emotion of the devastating last line: “And here comes Anna George, hurtling towards that howl.”

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You” by Maurice Carlos Ruffin

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I’ve grown to feel that the direct address of second person point-of-view—you—feels like a forced intimacy. There’s an insistence that isn’t necessarily requited, a desperation that meshes perfectly with the plight of the main character of Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s compelling “The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You,” (The Iowa Review 44/3) which details a few days in the life of a teenage prostitute in New Orlean’s French Quarter.

We meet the narrator as he’s working the street corner and is approached by one of his regulars, Mr. Jellnik, “…the only one who buy you food after he do his business.” Jellnik is from Idaho, and offers the narrator to fly him back to Idaho, where he lives, where he’ll be more safe than working the streets of the Quarter. The narrator responds, “Why do you care about what happen to me?”

That question, why does Jellnik care, why does anyone care, is central to the narrator’s position. Is it for love, or at least something reaching towards it? The narrator’s world requires him to act intimately when he doesn’t feel it, force himself to pretend he’s attracted to Johns even if he feels they are disgusting. Intimacy is about money and sex is about survival. It’s a job. If someone cares, there has always been an ulterior motive. In his own words, “…if you don’t fake it, what else you got?”Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Interiors” by Andrea Maturana

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Boredom could be defined as a lack of interest in the surrounding world, and as such, not a particularly fun state of mind to be in, nor a compelling trait for a protagonist of a short story. But Andrea Maturana’s short story “Interiors,” (A Public Space 22, translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary) shows how fascinating boredom can be, and that there are much worse afflictions.

We meet Dr. Villagrán, a gynecologist, in the beginning of his morning rounds, and quickly discover how cynical he has become about his job. “The first patients of the morning had the privilege of an identity,” but after that they retreated to nothing more than their crass physicality: “Mrs. Cunt Six, Seven, Eight.”

He’s also jaded about his marriage to his wife, Regina, and has been for years. Out of boredom, he recently had an affair with Blanca, his secretary. Though now even that has lost its luster. “His inability to maintain interest in things or people had become a trait nothing could change, not even Blanca’s lips.”Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Edna in Rain” by Marie-Helene Bertino

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Marie-Helene Bertino, in her short story, “Edna in Rain,” (Gulf Coast Winter/Spring 2015), goes to great lengths to make every aspect of her fictional world ordinary, in order that it might more clearly illuminate the absurdities of our own contemporary world. And making her fictional world ordinary is no small task, as by sentence three we discover that—to quote that 80s pops song—it’s raining men. The main character’s ex-boyfriend from high school falls from the sky and lands on the ground next to her.

“Kevin Groutmeyer, I said. Are you okay?
He was more than okay. Living with his partner and their twin boys in Harrisburg, and I said, Amazing! Harrisburg!”

Something unrealistic and absurd happens, then immediately the author‐through the narrator—normalizes it. To Edna, the surprise isn’t that it is raining exes. It’s that she hasn’t seen this or that one for so many years, and he’s doing so well. She’s reacting how anyone might react to meeting someone from their past on the street.Continue Reading