There's a lot of death in September's stories. Symbolic of the arrival of fall and all the dead leaves we can look forward to raking? Perhaps. Or maybe it just worked out that way.
Peter Wood authored Castaways, September's first story. I'm envious. He's been published by magazines that have only given me rejections.
The death theme starts with this story. Krebs and Hale come from a future that suffered a pandemic that wiped out most of humanity.
I can't criticize the writing no matter how much I want to. The only issue I have with the story arises from my knowledge of the television series Gilligan's Island. But first I'll hand out compliments for the same reason. Wood has been clever with the names and characteristics of his characters. Jonas Hale is sort of the second fiddle in this time travel mission. Alan Hale was the actor that played The Skipper—Gilligan's captain, but the second fiddle in the comedy team. The skipper served mostly as a straight man for Gilligan's antics. He even adds to this little match-up by having Ginger Ale address him by asking, "What's your name, sailor?" A bit later he gets even more specific. "Hale patted his sizable gut." Alan Hale was stocky.
Yes, Ginger Ale. In the series the glamorous woman wearing slinky dresses was Ginger Grant. Ginger introduces herself as "Tina." Tina Louise is the actress that played Ginger Grant. And to continue the cross-referencing, when Tina and Hale return to the bar after Paley has left, Tina tells Hale, "you left your little buddy alone to talk to Paley." The Skipper frequently called Gilligan "Little Buddy." And to top off the nostalgic laughs, she makes it clear that in the other time lines Hale screwed up the approach to Haley in various ways—just like Gilligan would have done.
And of course the man that runs their underground bunker in the future is called the Professor, who was one of the characters on the series.
When I began writing this I was going to remark that any actor that played Gilligan could never get elected Senator. Gilligan was a submissive, polite, well-meaning screw-up, and not too bright. The character would be too attached to the actor to allow that actor to get elected to major office.
However...if the series went twelve years and became serious, like a science fiction soap opera, the character had plenty of time to gradually change and acquire a stronger image. So, darn it, I can't even fix on that for a criticism.
Wood is good.
Unusually, an author has two stories in the same month. Sarah Etgen-Baker contributes The Butterfly Whisperer on the eleventh and Intangible Ingredients on the twenty-fifth.
The first story is short and sweet and has little room for review, although it is worth pointing out that when a person suffers from a stroke, millions of brain cells die, in keeping with September's theme. But there was this one thing: "the air—light and fresh—gently blew the long, crisp, white curtains to and fro." I really hate "to and fro." The last time I encountered that phrase was in elementary school. This would have been so much better if she had drawn an oblique reference to the butterflies, or to grace, in the description of the curtains' movements. "The long white curtains fluttered in the fresh breeze like delicate wings." Or "The light and fresh air blew gently through the open French doors, inspiring a graceful waving of the white curtains." Almost anything but "to and fro."
Intangible Ingredients is very similar in tone but much more detailed. And there's nothing resembling "to and fro." The longer story gets the shorter review. There's nothing wrong with it. It feels like a memoir, but it is listed as a story so I can take issue with something I felt did not quite fit. Her brothers apparently tossed the recipe box because they could see little value in the dog-eared yellowed recipes. But there were more than recipes in there. There were photos and mementos. And hadn't they ever seen their sister cooking or baking with their mother and using those recipe cards? It seemed to me unlikely that they would have junked it without at least a phone call to see if she wanted it.
Perhaps that didn't happen. Maybe the disappearance was due to some other mishap. It disappeared "just like my mother's memories did." What an excellently subtle way to suggest that her mother had suffered from dementia or maybe even Alzheimer's without allowing that issue more relevancy than is warranted in this story.
Tell Them I'm Not Dead! by Cherie W. Brackett puzzles me. Is this fiction, or memoir? The author uses her own name for one of the characters. That this appeared in The Reading Lamp rather than as a story reinforces the possibility that it is memoir. If so, I have nothing to criticize. In that case it is not fiction. The writing is fairly succinct, it shows the two settings very well and does well also with the characters' emotions. And I have no trouble believing the psychic connection to be factual.
If it is fiction, though, it is disappointing. The psychic connection of Grady to his sister has no real significance. It does not save his life. Possibly his prayer was answered with a "Yes," by God, but all it did was worry Cherie and cause her to lose sleep and gain frustration trying to reach someone in the military.
It would have been a better story if the connection had allowed his sister to get a message to someone and prevent Grady's premature assignment to the ranks of the dead. His buddies did die, though, so death is still the theme.
If It's to Heal by Brandann Hill-Mann continues the September theme of death...and life. I didn't like the way the story was put together at the beginning. It starts with Scott, which gives him some importance. I expected the story to be about Scott, since he got top billing.
It would have been truer to the story if it had started with "Nicole woke up on Saturday, alone, groggy, sore.
"The silence she'd expected. The beeping of the monitors were a given. The dull ache of her surgical site was annoying through the medication." Add something like "She was not surprised Scott was not there." Then continue with the first four paragraphs and pick it up from there. That would reduce Scott to a footnote, which he was. A small piece of her story, not the headline.
I would suppose most readers knew immediately that Hee-Jin was the survivor of the person that had donated the kidney. Why else would she be there? I found myself wondering why Nicole didn't understand that almost at once. But I've never been under heavy sedation or pain killers for major surgery. Maybe those things do dull the mental faculties along with the physical ones.
I Married a Freegan by Joe Guderian is the best story of September. It doesn't have any death; it's why the title for this review included a mention of life.
Although I'm not a fan of romance fiction, I'm not opposed to it either. This is actually a very formulaic story. Boy meets girl, boy marries girl, both families not thrilled, boy and girl persevere, a baby on the way. Romance publishers and editors insist on the Happy Ever After or at least the Happy For Now ending. This meets that criteria.
But that is only a part of what makes this story good. Guderian's use of metaphor and similes is really good. Some of them are outstanding. "My heart melted like a Dali clock." What a great image! Later, we get "like having to appear at a command performance without knowing the words to the song." And then right after, " a beaded top cut so low it looked like she was skipping rope."
There are more, but not too many. Some authors that have a talent (or skill?) for this will overdue it to the point that the story becomes almost unreadable. Not here. A few well-chosen word pictures go a long way and are appreciated more for their sparsity, and they infuse a real life into a story that might otherwise die on the vine.
Maybe I should have titled this with "life" coming before "death." In all the stories, people still live and triumph, whether the spectacular time-travel paradox of preventing a pandemic to the small personal triumph of baking without needing the recipe card.
Life may overcome death in these September stories, but we're still going to have to rake leaves in October. I wonder what that month's stories will bring.
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.