Every Kiss a War (Mojave River Press, 2014) is a collection of short and short-short stories by Leesa Cross-Smith. The sentence structure tends to be fairly simplistic, and the theme is often love in Kentucky. While Every Kiss a War might sound deceptively simple, the stories within radiate with a unique light that stunned this reader.
The characters in Cross-Smith’s stories are described as extremely perceptive, even when they don’t makes choices based on what they see and know. In “And It Can Never Be Too Dark or Too Bright,” the narrator describes her two beaus. One of them “…kisses like a dying man. He kisses like he worships women. Your mouth is his church.” Here, it is less that the man is smooth, but that the woman is perceptive as the focus. Death/worship/church all go together, but the images are a bit off kilter for romance. In this case, though, Cross-Smith makes it work because the way the narrator’s beau treats her is deadly serious, which must be deduced.
A moment of clarity doesn’t have to be explained, a kindness that Cross-Smith extends to her readers. In “Kentucky Sugar,” a thirty-five-year-old woman takes a younger lover. She gives him an orange ball cap to wear when he visits one day, which we learn originally belonged to her ex-husband. When the ex shows up to pick up some of his things only to see the young guy in his old hat, things get heated. After the ex leaves, the woman decides she must do something:
She snatches the orange ball cap from the floor and goes into the kitchen. I [the young lover] follow her. She shoves it into the garbage can, smashes it down. She takes a big ladle of sauce from dinner, pours it in there, too. “Alright,” she says after she’s finished.
In these brief sentences, it dawned on me that the woman had thrown the hat–a memory of the ex-husband–into the trash before. By mashing it down, she’s pushing it into the filth, but to prevent herself from removing the hat later, she makes it a mess with a ladle of wet food. None of these thoughts are told to the reader; we get it on our own in a way that allows us to join the moment.
Although the woman and her hat don’t seem definitively strong, women are in control in this collection. When a young woman leaves her boyfriend, who previously had many lovers that he dumped for her, she breaks up with him via a note stuck in his cigarettes:
Come on. I am a lioness on a big, hot rock. I told you that.
The woman makes the final decision, her way, and unapologetically. Even the repeated vowels–“o” in particular–give the words a strong sound in the reader’s ear.
Some of the strong characters may not be likable to the reader, say, if you hate cheating or women in control of their sex lives. For me, it’s not about questioning whether a character’s decisions match my personal values, but how well those decisions are sewn into the fabric of the character. Read this example of a woman who has now run away from her husband, Dominic, twice, and is thinking of having sex in the middle of the night with a veritable stranger name Roscoe in the dugout of a baseball field:
And I thought about how maybe if Dom got there a little to early, he’d catch the end of it. He’d stand there and watch Roscoe’s ass tighten and let go, my skirt hitched up somewhere by my ribcage, my brown legs and cowboy boots wilding up into the hot-breath night air. My panties pushed to the side like they were nothing. I’d say hold on, hold on, to Dominic and he’d stand there and watch us panting like animals. My mouth pressed against Roscoe’s ear, begging underneath that tight sky and half-moon.
Maybe before he threw me over his shoulder, took me home, got me pregnant and made me a good, decent wife and mom–my husband would stand there and wait until I was finished. On the drive back home I’d feel a little bad, tell him what a good boy he was. Make promises, pat his head. Let his rough, pink tongue lick my hand.
Now, readers may feel that the narrator telling her husband where she is so he can come pick her up on to see her cheat and then have him beg like a dog later is deplorable. However, given the personality of this character established earlier in the story, her strength–her ability to act without permission or guilt–is magnificent. We typically see women waiting at home for adulterous husbands, women crying because they don’t understand how sex can mean nothing and that her husband can still love her. Here, the roles are reversed, and I applaud Cross-Smith’s ability to make me understand the unsavory person.
“Whiskey and Ribbons” is my favorite piece. It stands out not only because the situation is different from many other stories in the book–Evangeline’s husband is killed in the line of duty, leaving her a pregnant widow–but because the emotions got into me and made me join in like some concerned neighbor or relative. The grief of Evangeline is so visceral, and Dalton, her husband’s friend who now lives in her house, is such a good person. Dalton sleeps in his own room, never makes a move on Evangeline, and helps care for the new baby. There are so many good people in the story that only grief seems to be the villain, which is unusual. Watching the minor characters state concern about Evangeline’s living situation and grief adds sprinkles to the flavorful story, but it also makes the reader–and Evangeline–wonder if she’s making good decisions. Eventually, Evangeline comes to a philosophy about how to live:
What a twist! In a surprising moment, Cross-Smith describes the sound of a train, which usually spells danger, as something that could be healing. Trains are powerful and can be fast-moving. Perhaps this is what she means? Dalton might be the train; regardless, the author leaves me in this woman’s head to consider her life and the way she chooses to deal with tragedy. Never once did I feel the need to impose my beliefs on Cross-Smith’s characters because she gives them so much life that I accept them–like real people.
Some short story collections blur together, but I really remember a lot of these stories, even if I don’t remember the names of the characters: The girl who had an abortion and lives with her friend and her friend’s mom. The man who meets up with the woman who owns the coffee store. The professor who lives in France. The newlyweds who have kids the same age. I highly recommend Every Kiss a War. If you are on Goodreads, Leesa Cross-Smith loves to reach out to readers. To find out more about her, please check out her Meet the Writer feature published here on Grab the Lapels!