I recently finished another short story collection, this one called Women Up On Blocks by Mary Akers (she/her). The title derives from, I’m guessing, the way people put a car up on blocks to work on it, though in many cases that car lives there forever, with grass and weeds growing around and through it after a number of years. My enjoyment of Ackers’s collection stemmed less from the actual plots and more from the writing and emotion.
The stories all sound familiar: stressed mothers, wives, and daughters. Unhelpful fathers and husbands. But Ackers could catch my attention with the first line of a story: “How you recognize a monster is dependent upon how you view normality.” And then ooh, I’m ready and where are we going! But I never knew where we were going. An unhelpful husband may not be worthy of divorce, just scorn. A recently deceased alcoholic father may earn some pity instead of hatred:
Along with the box, the funeral director gave them an official death certificate and a bag containing the auxiliary remains of their father: his upper dentures, yellowed, and missing four teeth on the right side; his glasses, thick, old, and ambered, nose pads grimy with the grease of human existence; and an old, yellowed Timex with a cracked face and a stretched-out wristband.
The description of what’s leftover of a life drank away hit me hard. These items are arguably gross, but they’re all that’s left of the man who was a father and grandfather. The narrator sees her father as what he was at good points, and the good things he did. Her three siblings, however, only remember the abuse, which wasn’t always obvious physical violence, but instances like “They laid Cecie out on the seat of the station wagon as a baby. I can still remember the time she rolled right onto the floorboard when dad stopped hard.”
As I get older I think more about the way we process relationships. Perhaps the other person has died or moved away, or you are no longer in contact by choice or circumstances. What do we remember, how do we miss them, and is the processed package truly representative of the absent person? And readers are told, “Fifteen years wasn’t too long for [an old memory] to resurface, come bobbing back up like a corpse in a flood.”
And other times Akers had me laughing. In another great opener, she writes:
Olivia never should have started dating a geologist. That’s clear as quartz as she stands in the Museum of Natural History, Rob looking over her shoulder, his hot geologist’s breath tickling her ear, her pulse pounding in her temples.
My first thought is someone needs to explain “geologist breath” to me, but then I turn around and wonder if that would ruin all the fun! I find it humorous that young creative writers are told to draw in the reader in with the first sentence, and instead of being precise or memorable, amateurs tend to start with something “edgy.” Here, I wonder at that first sentence. Do geologists have some terrible reputation of which I am not aware? I’m captured!
I had a lot of fun reading Women Up On Blocks and found myself thinking of different moments and imagery long after I finished, which is uncommon for me with short stories.
CW: ableism, child abuse, self-harm