Love Like That: Stories
This collection of nine stories features florid depictions of low life, vivid details about dysfunctional relationships spent in seedy strip motels, and an unusual number of descriptions of toilets.
One hopes that such a repertoire would yield insights into the human condition or be the ripe settings for plots that force the reader to turn page after page. Alas.
Most of the stories do not have a plot in the conventional sense where there is an initial conflict, a series of complications, a crisis, some falling action, then resolution. Or where the reader observes a change in one of the characters.
In the lead story “The Zen Thing” the reader meets six characters in the first page and a half (yes, confusing) staying at the Sea Breeze Motel. It fulfills most of the previous observations. About the motel: “the doors open onto a courtyard, which is carpeted. In the middle of the carpet is a pool. In the middle of the pool, submerged, are a bikini bottom and a swimming noodle, which has somehow drowned . . .” Once at the beach the older members of the family sit around in chairs, wander off and talk; the young ones gambol in the sand and in the water. Everyone eats sandwiches. Frank’s colostomy bag breaks. The developmentally challenged child yells “Poopy belly button!”
“The Devil’s Triangle” is another story that relishes its wallow in low life with lines like “Do you think Victoria’s secret is that she has a yeast infection?” And the observation by Elsie in the bathroom that “The plunger next to her had been recently used. She looked at it for a while, at the slick pottery glaze of it, . . .”
“Plagiarism” is a story of a high school teacher whose chipper, not bright, ingratiating student Becky becomes overnight an expert on devotional imagery in Jane Eyre. Twenty pages go by talking about the school, its customs and everyone telling Helen why she cannot report Becky because her parents donated a million dollars to the school and Becky was applying to Stanford. There are no new arguments or insights. No buildup of resolve on Helen’s part to be true to her profession. Only in the last paragraph it is revealed she is going to make a call, but to the student’s father?
The affair in “Exuma” takes up most of the pages, but it is not what the story is about. Gina was a nanny until her first charge slid on his sled under a moving car. Not her fault. She takes a job in a movie theater. Most of the story is devoted to her affair with the owner of the theater. Six months later, on the way home on Halloween, a little boy runs into her legs and falls down. “‘Honey,’ she said. She was weeping now. ‘Do you hear me?’ The boy began to squirm.” Too terribly symmetrical, too terribly theatrical.
There are two tales in the collection worth spending time with because the reader will enjoy the characters. They are two of the smaller and less ambitious stories and better for that. “Marvel Sands” and “Sure Fine.”
“Marvel Sands” features Annie, a ticket taker and cleaner at a state beach and the beach manager. She is a young 15. Initially the manager, an older guy, is gruff and calls out her small lapses. Then the author builds up a sense of sexual predation. In the small ticket booth: “We were almost touching. . . . He licked his thumb and reached for my face, and I flinched. He began rubbing just under my lower lip. . . . My eyes were in line with his, but I didn’t look at him. . . ‘Ink,’ he said.” A couple of days later, Annie hears the manager take off in his truck at the end of the day and goes into the bath house for a shower. “Then I heard the curtain rings slide along the rod. . . . His eyes traveled over my breasts and down my thighs. . . . I didn’t move.” Followed by her thoughts about what he might want to do: touch her, press her against the wall. “‘I forgot my wallet,’ he said finally, staring at my mouth.” Then he talked about how to dispose of an injured seagull in the parking lot and left.
“Sure, Fine” features Ruth, thirtyish, just out of a relationship, now looking for admin work in her hometown. She drifts into the seafood diner she worked when she was 14. And Eddy is still there. She hesitates, he throws her an apron, she puts it on over her skirt suit and starts work. One day a bus load of tourists pulls in and order 47 fish and chips, only 20 filets ready. Eddy and Ruth start, Eddy slices his thumb to the bone, Ruth, after hesitation and vodka, sews it up, wraps it in duct tape.“‘Let’s feed a fucking bus,’ he said, and kicked open the door to the kitchen.” Woven through the tale is the memory of their encounter the first time she worked at the diner, he is now calling her by her previous nickname “Legs” and his confession that he is no longer with his wife, then the final phrase, “as she watched his ankles appear, she reached behind her and pulled the strings of her apron free.”
The longest story in the collection, “The Package Deal” features a second-person narrator, a woman, the Boyfriend, and his Kid. No names. Everything that happens is what always happens when a single woman moves in with a Boyfriend who shares a Kid with his wife. Nothing new, or clever (unless the reader is fond of an analogy like “the mere sound of car doors slamming in the driveway makes your chest as tight as an asshole”), or insightful. Or dialogue to share. A third of a page of the word “Dad.”
Altogether a mixed bag.