A Month of Short Stories 2017, Day 21 – Only Sunshine by Becky Mandelbaum

Belle Plaine Service Area, Kansas Turnpike

Over several years, for the month of June, I wrote about a short story that was available online each day of the month…. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year – In September this time… because it is September.

Today’s story, for day 21 – Only Sunshine by Becky Mandelbaum

Read it online here:
Only Sunshine by Becky Mandelbaum

Baby Julia was a baby, but even she understood that she was nothing much in the grand scheme of things. She would never be one of the greats: the rain or the wind or the dirt or the sky. But maybe, just maybe, she could participate in some peripheral way—by touching or tasting or, even better, by eating the celestial thing that she admired most. Why not? All around her, things were consuming other things: caterpillars were munching leaves, the mailbox was ingesting letters, the soil was drinking rain. Not to mention that every night, some invisible glutton took another bite of the moon. Eventually there’d be a new one—full and silver and miraculously intact—but without fail, that anonymous mouth would slowly eat it back down to a measly grain of rice. And then there was her mother who, every day, without fail, put the same plastic spoon in her mouth: pudding, applesauce, mashed peas. So why not this? Why not her and why not today and why not the sun?

—-Becky Mandelbaum, Only Sunshine

The most difficult question I get asked, and I get asked it a lot, is, “Where are you from?”

For most people that’s pretty easy, but I have no idea what to say. The most accurate answer is “nowhere,” but that seems pretty insolent as does “everywhere” which means exactly the same thing. Usually I say, “I’ve lived in Dallas for a long, long time,” which is accurate and probably the best answer. I am from where I live and I live where I’m from.

One place that does hold a claim on me is Kansas. My family is from there. I lived there as a youth whenever my father was on combat tours and couldn’t take his family along. We were stationed in the Northeast corner of the state for a while (on a base and in a town known for its prisons). In high school, for a few months I was a refugee there after being evacuated from a terrible earthquake. I went to college there (since my family was from Kansas, I was granted in-state tuition, which made the decision easy. My nickname for at least the first year or so was “banana boat,” as in “Bill, you are an American, but you act like you fell off the banana boat.”) My first job, for three years, after school was in Kansas.

So the state does have its hooks in me to some extent. But is it home? Nah.

There is no home. I hear stories like, “So and so went to school in Shreveport but after a month she was homesick and came back.” I have no idea what that means. Homesick is an emotion that I have never felt. When I travel I feel as much at home in some bland business hotel as I do in my bed in the house I make payments on. Which is, not at all. Or completely. Which means the same thing.

Today’s author, Becky Mandelbaum, is from Kansas and writes about Kansas (though she no longer lives there). Her book of short stories is called Bad Kansas – which is a pretty compelling title.

I read several of her works online and chose one that doesn’t have any obvious connection to that state. It’s called Only Sunshine and is a bit of magical realism (light on the realism) about an infant that eats the sun. It’s an effective piece – you really feel for the parents of the doomed baby and their futile attempts to stop the thermonuclear fusion.

I enjoyed the delicate tone and the simple story. I’ve been around enough babies to be pretty sure this is how they look at things and they would gobble old sol if they had the chance.

While I was in school, even though I was a chemistry major I tried to slip into as many advanced literature classes as I could, wedging them in between Differential Equations and Physical Chemistry. One that I took was “Literature of the Great Plains.” On the first day the professor apologized, “there isn’t really any great literature written on or about the Great Plains – we will have to make do with what we have.”

One concept is still with me. In the classic Giants in the Earth by O. E. Rölvaag, a women is essentially driven crazy by the sky and the fact that out on the plain, you can lie down, look up, and see nothing except the sky.

Beret had now formed the habit of constantly watching the prairie; out in the open, she would fix her eyes on one point of the sky line–and then, before she knew it, her gaze would have swung around the whole compass; but it was ever, ever the same. . . . Life it held not; a magic ring lay on the horizon, extending upward into the sky; within this circle no living form could enter; it was like the chain inclosing the king’s garden, that prevented it from bearing fruit. . . . How could human beings continue to live here while that magic ring encompassed them? And those who were strong enough to break through were only being enticed still farther to their destruction! . . .

They had been here four months now; to her it seemed like so many generations; in all this time they had seen no strangers except the Indians–nor would they be likely to see any others. . . . Almost imperceptibly, her terror because of the stakes which her husband had burned had faded away and disappeared. . . . They had probably belonged to the Indians, so it did not matter; he had become fast friends with them. . . .

People had never dwelt here, people would never come; never could they find home in this vast, wind-swept void. . . . Yes, they were the only ones who had been bewitched into straying out here! . . . Thus it was with the erring sons of men; they were lost before they knew it; they went astray without being aware; only others could see them as they were. Some were saved, and returned from their wanderings, changed into different people; others never came back. . . . God pity them: others never came back! . . .

At these times, a hopeless depression would take hold of her; she would look around at the circle of the sky line; although it lay so far distant, it seemed threatening to draw in and choke her. . . .

. . . So she grew more taciturn, given to brooding thoughts.

But then the unthinkable took place: some one from outside broke through the magic circle. . . .

Today’s story made me think about Giants in the Earth… I’m not sure why. Maybe the opening line of Rölvaag’s book.

Bright, clear sky over a plain so wide that the rim of the heavens cut down on it around the entire horizon. . . . Bright, clear sky, to-day, to-morrow, and for all time to come.

. . . And sun! And still more sun! It set the heavens afire every morning; it grew with the day to quivering golden light–then softened into all the shades of red and purple as evening fell. . . . Pure colour everywhere. A gust of wind, sweeping across the plain, threw into life waves of yellow and blue and green. Now and then a dead black wave would race over the scene . . . a cloud’s gliding shadow . . . now and then. . . .

Interview with Becky Mandelbaum:

How do you feel about social media to promote your writing, and do you use it?

I usually don’t like using social media to promote my writing. I like to write because writing feels, in many ways, like a rejection of all the technology we’ve come to rely on. A story on paper is so simple. You have the text, the reader, and the exchange. I think bringing other mediums into the picture can ruin that interaction. Of course, it can also enhance it in other, peripheral ways. I’ve liked several of my favorite journals on Facebook, and it’s nice to see what’s going on with those publications.
—-From Midwestern Gothic

Keeper of the Plains,
Wichita, Kansas

A Month of Short Stories 2015, Day Twenty – Odour of Chrysanthemums

The last two years, for the month of June, I wrote about a short story that was available online each day of the month… you can see the list for 2014 and 2015 in the comments for this page. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year.

Today’s story, for day twenty – Odour of Chrysanthemums, by D.H. Lawrence

Read it online here:

Odour of Chrysanthemums

Odour of Chrysanthemums is a famous story – with a well-established position in the pantheon of great and famous short literature. But, somehow, I had never read it – or at least I didn’t remember reading it. And a story of this skill and emotional impact – I would have remembered it.

The first thing that struck me about this story is the language. The paragraphs are chock-a-block with unusual (at least for modern eyes), esoteric, and completely appropriate (even perfect) word choices.

gorse, footplate, coppice, spinney, whimsey, colliery, imperious mien, trundle, metals, winding-engine, steel fender, hob, crozzled… and so on.

I plowed through the first time (reading the story on my tablet in a coffee shop a short bicycle-ride from my house, drinking an iced Thai Milk Tea with boba) and only later, worked my way through with a dictionary website, learning the exact meaning of the words.

The second thing that fascinated me with the story is the description and sense of place. An English coal-mining town in all its filthy glory. What a difficult life. The wife with two children (and another on the way) waiting for her husband to come home from the mine – assuming he had bypassed dinner to go out drinking.

I assumed I was reading a piece of social commentary on the unfairness of life around the coal mines – and I suppose the story is. There is nothing in the text to dilute the clarity or sadness of the woman’s life and the impossible future her family faces.

One aspect of the story that I haven’t read about is the point that her husband suffocated. It was a slow death. If his wife hadn’t assumed he was out drinking and had alerted the other miners about his absence sooner, the end result might have been very different.

But, for all that, at the end, the story reveals its true heart, and its something else entirely. The title gives the first hint. Then there at the end, the wife is faced with her husband’s beautiful body and she realizes she never even knew him.

That is where the story really comes alive and where it has its strongest, unforgettable impact.

And there lies genius.

Outside, For A While Anyway

“They had laughed. They had leaned on each other and laughed until the tears had come, while everything else–the cold, and where he’d go in it–was outside, for a while anyway.”
― Raymond Carver, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

One of my favorite new places in Dallas is the Cold Beer Company. It’s on the far east side of Deep Ellum, and has been built as the rebirth of an interesting old building. It’s in a good location, has nice outdoor seating, and, of course, a good selection of cold beer.

I rode my bike there and noticed the brick patio entrance. Right in the middle of the paving was a single brick marked “Lawrence, Kansas.” I asked the waitress about that and she said one of the owners went to Kansas University, my alma mater.

“And he likes to talk about it,” she said.

So when he came out of the back I asked him about KU and the waitress was right – he liked to talk about it. He seemed a little sheepish about the brick. “They weren’t supposed to put it right there in the middle.” I’m not sure I believed him.

We talked about Lawrence and the Kansas winters. When I would look around, the waitress and bartender would roll their eyes.

I think they had heard it all before – many times before.

Paving brick in front of the Cold Beer Company Deep Ellum, Dallas, Texas

Paving brick in front of the Cold Beer Company
Deep Ellum, Dallas, Texas

Patio in front of the Cold Beer Company, Deep Ellum, Dallas, Texas

Patio in front of the Cold Beer Company,
Deep Ellum, Dallas, Texas

My Xootr Swift folding bike in the cool bike rack in front of the Cold Beer Company Deep Ellum, Dallas, Texas

My Xootr Swift folding bike in the cool bike rack in front of the Cold Beer Company
Deep Ellum, Dallas, Texas