Short Story of the Day, “Sea Change” by Nancy M. Michael

But those in the mix know what blood tastes like.

—-Nancy M. Michael, Sea Change

Approaching Storm, Dallas, Texas

I used to take a month each year to comment on and link to short stories published online.

Short Story Months:

Day One 2013

Day One 2015

Day One 2017

I haven’t done that for a while, but have been thinking about it. That doesn’t keep me from reviewing them one at a time. Last year, I wrote about Driven Snow by Nancy M. Mitchel. The author commented on my blog entry (with the surprising revelation that the story was true and the woman survived). She mentioned that she had another story on the Akashic book website, Sea Change.

Go read it – a short, pithy read. Then you can come back and read the rest of what I wrote.

It’s of an interesting construction in that the protagonist isn’t directly involved in the action. Stories like that are cool because there are two stories – the main, observed action… and the reaction of the observer. It’s quite a feat to accomplish this in so few words.

 

A Month of Short Stories 2017, Day 25 – Mademoiselle Fifi by Guy de Maupassant

Graffiti in Deep Ellum. This warrior is nothing if not well-muscled… plus he is carrying off his prize of war.

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 25 – Mademoiselle Fifi by Guy de Maupassant
Read it online here:

Mademoiselle Fifi by Guy de Maupassant

The captain, a short, red-faced man, was tightly belted in at the waist, his red hair was cropped quite close to his head, and in certain lights he almost looked as if he had been rubbed over with phosphorus. He had lost two front teeth one night, though he could not quite remember how, and this sometimes made him speak unintelligibly, and he had a bald patch on top of his head surrounded by a fringe of curly, bright golden hair, which made him look like a monk.

—-Guy de Maupassant, Mademoiselle Fifi

Guy de Maupassant wrote over three hundred short stories, which is a lot, and is considered one of the fathers of the modern short story. Despite this, probably the only thing of his you have read is The Necklace – which they made you read in high school. It. like most of Guy de Maupassant’s work, is a stunning look at the destructive power of class, envy, and poverty. But, since you read it in high school, you only caught on to the twist ending.

Guy de Maupassant’s work holds up well today – the themes are as modern as this weekend. Today’s story, in particular, could be adapted to the modern time without much work, it is a timeless story of brutal men that enjoy destroying what is fine… what makes life worth living. It is only when they are thrown together with equally brutal women that they might come to realize the error of their ways… and by that time it is too late.

Stairway to Heaven
James Suris
Steel, Paint
Art District, Dallas, Texas

A Month of Short Stories 2014, Day 20 – Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?

A year ago, for the month of June, I wrote about an online short story each day for 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.

Today’s story, for day twenty – Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?, by Joyce Carol Oates

Read it online here:

Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?

or, if you prefer, a PDF version here:
Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?

Well, after yesterday’s bloody and frightening short story, A Good Man is Hard to Find, I present you another one… even more horrific.

For some reason, I always associate these two stories with each other – there was a time I even conflated the authors a bit. Flannery O’Connor and Joyce Carol Oates are very different people with very different backgrounds – but both are masters of the grotesque and bizarre realities concealed in this strange world we find ourselves wandering lost in.

I’m not sure which story I like better. Probably today’s – because of its supernatural and symbolic undertones.

The author said it was inspired by the case of the “The Pied Piper of Tucson,” – serial killer Charles Howard ‘Smitty’ Schmid, Jr. But the evil Arnold Friend with his gold convertible and shoes stuffed with newspaper is stranger and more ghastly than any mere human killing machine. He is a pied piper – a strange and mutated siren that draws the young, doomed Connie through the only protection she has – a flimsy screen door.

A while back I wrote about another Joyce Carol Oates story, Life After High School… and it was today’s, I suppose, that convinced me the purpose of that story’s protagonist’s murderous intent. He wasn’t as experienced, skilled, or evil as Albert Friend and he failed – his victim escaped into a life after high school.

Poor doomed beautiful Connie. It’s a shame what happened to her… whatever it was.

Does make for a good story, though.

Sometimes they did go shopping or to a movie, but sometimes they went across the highway, ducking fast across the busy road, to a drive-in restaurant where older kids hung out. The restaurant was shaped like a big bottle, though squatter than a real bottle, and on its cap was a revolving figure of a grinning boy holding a hamburger aloft. One night in midsummer they ran across, breathless with daring, and right away someone leaned out a car window and invited them over, but it was just a boy from high school they didn’t like. It made them feel good to be able to ignore him. They went up through the maze of parked and cruising cars to the bright-lit, fly-infested restaurant, their faces pleased and expectant as if they were entering a sacred building that loomed up out of the night to give them what haven and blessing they yearned for. They sat at the counter and crossed their legs at the ankles, their thin shoulders rigid with excitement, and listened to the music that made everything so good: the music was always in the background, like music at a church service; it was something to depend upon.

A Month of Short Stories 2014, Day 9 – A Jury of Her Peers

A year ago, for the month of June, I wrote about an online short story each day for 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.

Today’s story, for day Nine – A Jury of Her Peers, by Susan Glaspell

Read it online here:

A Jury of Her Peers

A Jury of Her Peers was adapted by Susan Glaspell from her play Trifles. The story was loosely based on the murder of John Hossack, which Glaspell covered when she was a journalist. In the factual case, a farmer was killed with an axe while he slept. His wife, Margaret, was convicted of the crime, but the case was overturned and the retrial ended in a hung jury.

The short story is considered an early example of feminist literature. In it, the attitudes and abilities of the two women are contrasted with the men involved in the investigation of the murder. The men rush around, speculating about what might have happened and tease the women about their attention to trivial facts such as how the wife of the murdered man is making her quilt.

However, it is the women that discover the clue that reveals the truth of the murder. What they deduce from the clue and what they decide to do with it is the crux of the story and what makes it resonate.

Mrs. Hale had not moved. “If there had been years and years of–nothing, then a bird to sing to you, it would be awful–still–after the bird was still.”

It was as if something within her not herself had spoken, and it found in Mrs. Peters something she did not know as herself.

“I know what stillness is,” she said, in a queer, monotonous voice. “When we homesteaded in Dakota, and my first baby died–after he was two years old–and me with no other then–”

Mrs. Hale stirred.

“How soon do you suppose they’ll be through looking for the evidence?”

“I know what stillness is,” repeated Mrs. Peters, in just that same way. Then she too pulled back. “The law has got to punish crime, Mrs. Hale,” she said in her tight little way.

“I wish you’d seen Minnie Foster,” was the answer, “when she wore a white dress with blue ribbons, and stood up there in the choir and sang.”

The picture of that girl, the fact that she had lived neighbor to that girl for twenty years, and had let her die for lack of life, was suddenly more than she could bear.

“Oh, I wish I’d come over here once in a while!” she cried. “That was a crime! Who’s going to punish that?”

Life After High School

I read a lot of short stories. A lot.

All my life I have read voraciously and read short stories particularly. After the advent of the ebook and the portable reader I have been able to kick it up a notch. My Kindle goes with me everywhere and I’m able to read in the small nooks of time that I can scare up. The short story is particularly good to gobble up in these little snips and sips. I usually read one at lunch and another before I go to sleep. That’s two short stories a day… and over a few years… over a handful of decades… they add up.

Kindle

Call Me Ishmael

Forty years ago, I had an English professor ask me about my reading habits. I told him I had gone to high school in another country and life there consisted of days of boredom sandwiched between moments of stark terror. I had picked up the habit of reading whenever I could.

“But it is mostly junk,” I said, “Cheap Science Fiction and stuff like that.”

“Your sense of story is very strong.” the professor said, “Talking to students over the years, I think that the important thing is to read and it doesn’t really matter what you read, as long as you read a lot.”

Not too long ago, on this very blog, I did my Month of Short Stories entries – where I wrote about a short story each day. I enjoyed doing that and promised to write more about particular works that caught my fancy.

The other day I finished a large collection of Joyce Carol Oates short stories called High Lonesome. It brings together her own favorites over forty years – from 1966 to 2006. Oates is a very prolific writer and it was good to peruse this sampling.

Alice Munro recently won the Noble Prize for her short stories and I like to compare the two writers. Munro is the unassailable master of the form – but on the whole, I prefer reading Oates. Munro’s writing concerns the life she has led and the people she has known and the wisdom she has acquired. Wonderful stuff and I am so happy she deservedly won the prize. However, Oates goes one step beyond – she kicks it up a notch. Oates writes about the void… the beyond… the horror that lies right on the other side of the tender membrane that divides our world from the realm of madness.

That is something I am interested in.

There are a lot of great and interesting stories in the collection, including the classic “Where are you going, Where Have You Been?” and the amazing “Heat” – which I wrote about before. Today, I want to talk about one of the later stories in the collection, “Life After High School.”

Spoilers will be written, so please, surprise everyone and read the story first. I found a PDF of it here.

“Life After High School” seems to be a popular story for school essay assignments – there is a lot written about it on this interweb thing. I looked at more than a few – and everybody seems to completely miss the point of the story.

You see… it’s really three stories in one. The first two are tricks played on the reader – then she hits you with the hammer, the third.

The first three quarters of the story is the tragic tale of unrequited love where Zachary Graff, the intelligent but socially awkward teenager falls in love with Sunny Burhman, the attractive and popular girl that everyone likes. He eventually, Senior Year, works up the nerve to propose to her and she, of course, says no. He is so heartbroken he kills himself by running his car in a closed garage. This devastates Miss Burhman, and she is “Sunny” no more.

So far, so good. An oft-told tale, one that every reader, especially a young person, will recognize and understand.

But Oates throws a twist. The story isn’t “High School” – it’s “Life After…” and, decades later a middle-aged Sunny Burhman contacts another student, Tobias Shanks, from those days. They meet for lunch and Sunny discovers that the two boys were gay lovers and that Zachary went to see him after she had rejected Zachary and, moreover, Zachary had left him a suicide note.

So now the story has morphed into one of a sensitive young man destroyed by society’s disapproval and Zachary’s proposal to Sunny was his last, futile attempt to “fit in.”

And that is where most people that read it leave the story. It is where I was ready to leave it… but not everything fit.

For example, the description that Oates provides of Zachary was a little odd. She said that most people were afraid of him. That doesn’t fit with the usual view of an odd, awkward, gay loser.

Also, Sunny says to him, “Zachary, it’s a free world.” But his response is, “Oh no it isn’t, Sunny. For some of us, it isn’t” A foreboding answer for a young person. There are plenty of other incongruities – I’ll leave some for you to find – enough to make my point clear on a second reading.

But finally, there was a detailed list of items that were found in his car at his death, it was said to be oddly littered. There was a Bible, some pizza crusts, textbooks, size eleven gym shoes, a ten foot piece of clothesline in the glove compartment, and the engagement ring in the car. (italics mine)

What was that all about? Why tell us all this? Chekhov’s gun says there has to be a reason… a good one.

So I was a little suspicious of the story. And then, I came to the last line… and the whole story changed. You see you think the story is one thing, then you think it’s another – and with the simple, final sentence it all changes, radically, for the last time.

After they have talked and read the suicide note, Sunny, almost as an afterthought, says:

“What do you think Zachary planned to do with the clothesline?”

And there it is.

Zachary wasn’t simply an awkward, misunderstood teenager… he was a killer. He didn’t propose to Sunny because he loved her (though he certainly did) – he was trying to get her into his car so he could kill her. When he failed, he went to see Tobias Shanks, his other love, and tried the same thing with him. Only then, with his homicidal needs frustrated, did he then off himself.

And the girl knew it. Sunny didn’t change her life after high school because of guilt over her rejection of Zachary. She was devastated because of the realization of how close she came to evil, how near she was to being an innocent murder victim, how thin that membrane that protects us really is.

Now… that is a story.

The funny thing is, reading what other folks thought about the tale, nobody else seemed to get it.

Here’s an analysis that is confused by the clothesline and the final line – the most important part of the story.

The clothesline is a symbol whose meaning is up for interpretation because the story does not give it a definite role. It could have been used to force Tobias or Sunny into coming with Zachary or Zachary could have planned to use it to kill himself

Here’s one that only notices the coldness of the final question (in my opinion, her detachment is her armor against the horror that lies beyond)…

Barbara Burhman’s final question in the story, “Life After High School” by Joyce Carol Oates was an appropiate closure because it is a reflection and direct unfolding of one of Barbara’s defining core characteristics and how she really truly feels about Zachary: cold-hearted indifference.

and finally, this one, simply says,

In the extract it was mentioned that Zachary had a clothesline in the glove compartment when the police found him dead in his car. It shows us that if the carbon monoxide did not work to kill him, he would have used the clothesline. It is an appropriate closure to the story because it shows Barbara and Tobias that there was nothing that they could do to save him. Zachary was determined to kill himself. I guess it shows some relief that he would have committed suicide sooner or later, if they might have saved him from the car.

Yeah, right. That’s a pretty slim reason to put that sentence in there for a writer of Oates’ skill. It’s like Chekhov included a gun so that the protagonist could have something to clean.

Am I off base here? Am I reading something into that last question that isn’t there? Is this really a tale of teenage angst, society’s rejection, and doomed love? Am I nuts to read into it a brilliant subtext of homicide and madness?

I don’t think so.

What do you think? – That’s assuming you do.

Short Story Day 2 – Heat

2. – Heat
Joyce Carol Oates
http://www.classicshorts.com/stories/heat.html

Ok, now for something completely different. We swerve away from the careful, slightly arcane prose of W. Somerset Maugham to the modern, spare, gut-wrenching writing of Joyce Carol Oates.

I have read a lot of her stories over the years. As a matter of fact, I’m working through a massive tome (well, it would be massive if it wasn’t stored as a collection of electrons in my Kindle) of her collected works… spanning more than four decades of her prodigious output.

One of her best is the classic, Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been – which I re-read a week ago, read carefully, trying to fully understand the implications and observations of that frightening tale of adolescence and loss of innocence.

Heat is a very short, odd story. On the surface it is a horror story – the tale of the murder of twin girls, little more than children. It is more than this salacious collection of lurid facts, however.

The story is told from the point of view of another girl, a friend of the murdered twins. It is told in a simple, yet disjointed style. At first, it seems like a mannered, but straightforward telling of a horrific incident in the narrator’s youth.

If you pay close attention, however, the narrator begins including details that there is no way she could possibly know about. You can’t help but think, “Was she there? Did she see something? Was she involved in some way?” Of course she wasn’t… the reader knows this – but you can’t help but think.

Then there is the connection with the narrator’s adult life – her passions and destructive behavior. What is the relationship between these passages and the deaths of her twin friends from her childhood? Is she a reliable narrator? Why is she telling us all this?

The final line of the story seems to provide an answer – if not a complete and not a fully understandable one.

Now, if W. Somerset Maugham in his story seemed to hint at a second world, a world of chaos and primitive passions, one that civilized men almost always lack the courage to embrace – here we have Joyce Carol Oates completely tearing the tissue-like barrier between the two completely away – leaving the frightening reality that lies just beyond our everyday thoughts and actions completely exposed. It sits there bleeding and pulsing like a disembodied heart – and she enjoins us to look at it and acknowledge its existence through her fiction.

Or at least I think so.

Behind the icehouse in his car I’d think of Rhea and Rhoda and what happened that day upstairs in Roger Whipple’s room. And the funeral parlor with the twins like dolls laid out and their eyes like dolls’ eyes too that shut when you tilt them back. One night when I wasn’t asleep but wasn’t awake either I saw my parents standing in the doorway of my bedroom watching me and I knew their thoughts, how they were thinking of Rhea and Rhoda and of me their daughter wondering how they could keep me from harm, and there was no clear answer.
—-Joyce Carol Oates, Heat