March's stories aren't picked in March. They're chosen in the winter, January or February, when the nights are long and dark, the days are mostly overcast and there's always too much snow, too much cold wind, and it seems like the sun, when it makes an appearance, has forgotten it's supposed to be warm.
That mood seems to have seeped into the story selections for this month. As it happens, the darkest of these stories were selected in January and February while the two least-dark were selected in October and March.
I wonder if there's been any kind of research on phenomena like that. Might a writer have a better chance of selling a dark-themed story in the mid-winter months, and a lighter-themed story in spring and summer?
Ironically, the least-dark of these stories is the one that has "Night" in the title. And even in that, the only real light is the blonde hair of the hooker. It seemed to me that Sonny was missing a bet. An apparently attractive young woman who just became available liked his coffee. He should have stepped outside after her and asked her for a date. This is a literary story, but not one popular with editors that specialize in literary stories. Something happens.
The author manages to use the readers' knowledge to his advantage. Everyone knows what the inside of a diner like this one looks like. Only a few key words are needed to set the stage, and the reference to fighting the Japanese sets the era as well.
"Doll House" is not that terribly dark, but it is sad. The juxtaposition of the eleven-year-old girl who understands romance and the physical love that accompanies it while her parents are admitting the end of their romantic love is well done. Chelsea understands that the positioning of her two lovers mimics the real positioning of adults in love. She may not yet know the details, but she knows that this is how it should be. It is no more with her parents; and she wants so much for it to be again. The child's naiveté in believing that the physical intimacy is all that is necessary for love contrasts with the beginnings of adulthood she feels within her, there in her underwear.
Clearly the dolls present the idealized version of her parents. She so wishes she could restore their intimacy as easily as she represents it with her Disney dolls. Before she has to go downstairs—she at least suspects what's coming—she placates the fabric that covers her two make-believe lovers. Perhaps somehow she can placate her parents, or they can placate each other.
"The Orchid" is a story of hope within hopelessness. The narrator, Jeanine, is so desperate that she will try to befriend a boy who had the courage to stand against his father, violently, in defense of himself and his mother. Perhaps this boy will do the same for her? One must wonder if there was ever any love in Jeanine's marriage. The statement that Mister (that's all her husband is to her—just "Mister.") took motherhood from her is chilling in its implication. How would a man do that? It suggests an ugly and tragic picture.
Labeling the mark of abuse as a potential beautiful flower does give the reader some hope for the narrator. If she can turn the ugly mark of violence into something at least pretend-beautiful, there may be hope for her...psychologically if not physically.
But there is this question: does she want the boy to visit simply to give him the mothering she wants to give, and the boy apparently needs? Or...does she think, somewhere in her mind, that "Mister" will abuse her in the boy's presence, or abuse the boy himself, and the youngster will take the violent action he is clearly capable of?
The editors usually do an outstanding job of matching the picture with the story, but this time I wondered. The picture is of a smoking gun, but I got the impression a knife did the damage, mostly from the description of the bandages.
I'm not especially fond of second-person present tense stories. Nevertheless, it is used effectively in "Heartland." This is also a story of hopelessness, but of a different kind. This man, "you," cannot protect his family from what is to come. But he can protect them from the worry and sadness of the knowledge. Physically, he is nearly done already and at a relatively young age. Yet he will do what he can—he will, in fact, extend himself to his limits for his family, even though that little bit might, in the long run, mean nothing. But what else is there for him?
Writers have few tools to really put emphasis on a statement. We have exclamation marks, of course, but their overuse reduces the content to childishness or unplanned comedy. There are all-caps, italics, underlines, even bold face. But those, too, must be used sparingly, or, many purists feel, not at all in the text of a story.
One of the devices we have that may be underused is the structure of the paragraph. When a sentence, especially a short one, stands by itself in the text, it can't help but acquire an impact it doesn't have when stuck in a paragraph with other sentences. That attractive sexy person doesn't have near the effect on the libido when in a crowd as he/she has when standing alone, inviting closer scrutiny.
"You're forty-two." deserves its own paragraph.
I would never walk a mile for a Camel since I never smoked cigarettes, but I might walk a mile for a Lee Allen Hill story. "The Scout" is not Lee at his best—it is Lee at his typical. Not that he always writes sad or tragic stories. But the writing here is genuine LAH. The jargon and dialect are spot on; the story doesn't waste a word, yet tells the reader everything they need to know. Nowhere is there an occurrence or a situation that leaves the reader wondering where it came from, or why it is there. Everything in the story is essential, and everything essential is there. Could it have been a story with a happy ending? Of course. But a happy ending is just that—an ending. Tragic outcomes like this one assure the reader that there is more. We may not ever know what, but we can speculate. A story that seemed to be about success and redemption turned dark and cold. That's like a mirror image of March.
I have just one point of discontent with Mr. Hill's writing. It is not nearly sufficiently available to the general public. Page and Spine, plus FanStory.com (where he wins contests so regularly you might think he owns the site) are two of only three venues where his work can be seen (as far as I know). He should anthologize his stories. Not for money or recognition, just as a public service, so more people who like to read excellent short stories would have the opportunity to read his.
"So This is What it Feels Like" immediately reminded me of the January story, "The Real Thing." The two narrators have much in common. Both have subverted their search for affection with a search for sex. Both have made the mistake of equating sex with some kind of game—a game they win if they score.
But while the narrator in the January story cheats himself, the narrator here is much worse. Both treat their "dates" as objects of conquest, but this narrator actually resorts to drugging and bondage. He deserves worse than what he's going to get...more on that later.
This story is much shorter than the other, so valid comparisons of the writing are difficult. Petra McQueen has written a story of gentle words and soft control, a distinct contrast to the harsh contempt that colors every thought and word of "The Real Thing."
"So This is What it Feels Like" does have an implied flaw. What does this girl have planned for him? He has told us some of the physical difficulties inherent in his activity. It is hard to believe that the girl will be able to do to him what he has done to her. How will she get him from the public place to her private chamber? It is her turn, but how will she accomplish her aim?
However, there is potentially a very clever double meaning. The "it" in the title might mean the experience of being drugged and helpless. And I think it is intended that the reader's first impression is just that.
But perhaps the "it" is in fact the gentleness that he has craved and never before experienced, until now.
Will she treat him like March treats us? She has begun this night like a lamb. Will she or won't she finish it—and him—like a lion?
♦ Fred Waiss is a former high school teacher and coach who writes poetry, articles, short stories, novellas, and novels as the muse attacks; as an author he considers himself a work in progress.
♦ This author's generous contributions help make P&S possible.