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.”

Except it hasn’t. The protagonist changes the subject and begins talking about the nature of bedbug infestation, and whose fault it was that they are now in a motel.

“You know,” I say, “they can hide in the spines of books”
He swallows. “What can?”
“Bedbugs.”
He turns to me… “You think I brought them in?”
“It seems highly possible.”

Before, the bedbugs were simply the reason why they were in the hotel room. Now Adnot-Haynes uses them to mirror the developing problem that the protagonist is dealing with. What terrible realities are lurking inside the banalities of life, unknown, unseen, waiting to come out and cause problems later?

Adnot-Haynes then shifts the stories’ focus. The protagonist stops trying to explain herself to her husband, and instead now tries to explain this truth she’s struggling with to the reader. We discover a secret. One day she was over at the house of that friend she’d given the cream to, where she’d been hired as a cleaner. There she finds the cream, and she takes it back, mirroring what her husband says is the reasonable thing to do. But then her friend’s father stumbles upon her while she’s doing her duties, and they end up sleeping together. The protagonist considers telling her husband this.

“But I think about finishing my story out loud, telling him all of it, saying this: I haven’t been such a good person, and I guess that’s really what I wanted to tell you the whole time.”

But she doesn’t tell him, and that serves to solidify the point in the story. We find she didn’t even like her friend’s dad that much, but slept with him anyway. So why did she do it? Is it because, as she said, she’s not such a good person? The end both ties the story’s parts together but also opens it up to that mystery of human nature, arriving in the form of another hidden adversary.

“I think he (the father) gave me herpes—the mouth kind—because two days after the whole thing happened a sore bloomed at the corner of my lip like a cactus flower. On the other hand maybe it was always there, dormant, under the surface, like something lying in wait.”

There’s no psychologizing here, no explanation, no reasoning. Only maybe. For the protagonist, those attempts—like her husband’s—fall short in their attempts to explain reality. There are some things you can’t prepare for, some things you can’t give back. There are some truths that can’t be explained; they can only be shown through metaphor and story. Adnot-Haynes layers these narratives of herpes, bedbugs, facial cream, and infidelity upon one another, pointing to a reality as complex as the characters that inhabit her world, and ours.