Women Up On Blocks by Mary Akers

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

23 comments

  1. I am probably reading into it too much, but that cover kept catching my eye when I saw this book on the table and making me think. I know that some covers are chosen with minimal input from the writer, but I hope this was not the case here. The juxtaposition of the legs and high gloss heels against the backdrop of grungy car body and glossy engine block seemed to be carefully chosen and an interesting statement. My eyes were always drawn to the bottom of that shoe, which had to be a deliberate choice. The “Stories by Mary Akers” text is roughly the height of the bottom of the shoe and nestled just to the right of it without a solid block of color behind it like the title. I am sure the intent is for the viewer to land on the bottom of that shoe and then read that text. Great graphic designers, and especially great makers of graphic novels know how to influence the way your eyes will take in an image and use that progression to tell a story before you even get to the words. Without even picking up the book, I feel like I’ve read a bit of it. I was glad to read about your experience. I would have been disappointed if the book hadn’t lived up to its cover.

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    • I was also drawn to that cover, but more the way color affected my eyes. I know that’s not what you’re looking for in an image, but I can confirm the colors seem carefully chosen as well. I wouldn’t think the red heels would have anything to do with the inside of a car, but the colors go together to make it a bright cherry sort of color.

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  2. My youngest daughter is a geologist. I think her breath is ok. Love Nick’s response to the cover. I was wondering is the woman up on blocks to be repaired, to save her tyres (which used to be the reason for storing cars on blocks), or because she’s having her shoes stolen.

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    • Well now I have to know more about what your daughter does. I love rocks and Earth sciences, but don’t have a full-on science mind. I took geology in college, which required buying a box of rocks.

      Isn’t Nick just brilliant? He’s so smart about design stuff, and I think a lot of that comes from his appreciation and study of graphic novels and comic book panels.

      A lot of the stories are from working class people, and in one case a man literally drops his car on himself while he’s under it working. The cover fits really well.

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  3. This sounds like a great collection and those quotes are certainly memorable. Wasn’t placing a baby on the seat of a car pretty standard though in the days before car seats? I guess, ideally, someone would at least be holding them but from the stories I’ve heard from older relatives, that didn’t seem shocking to me!

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    • Every so often I have a heyday Googling pictures of old car seats. They’re basically a bar. I must confess I laughed at the baby quote because it’s fiction, so I feel safe to do so, but I was also remembering how parents didn’t put children in the little NASA space seats they have today. The baby rolling off the seat was likely to happen, which in my brain is so awful as to be cartoony — hence the laugh. And the way people remember such things so casually adds to my internal horror-laughter.

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      • That is pretty funny! My parents lived in Manila when my brother was born and it was 1982 so car seats weren’t a thing there. They brought my brother home in a taxi, held in my mom’s arms, and my dad paid the driver extra to drive slow!

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          • The first cars my family had had what we called “bench seats” – just a flat seat and close to what you have in back seats of cars today except today there is some contouring. A bench seat in the front of course enabled much canoodling between driver and date! “Bucket seats” in the front, ie one per person, were the height of luxury and were advertised that way. At least this is what I remember. I wasn’t old enough to buy cars then so can only remember from what I saw and I heard the adults saying.

            Anyhow, I loved this post. I do like short stories, and these sound really interesting – fresh voice, human stories. The title is great. Is there a feminist angle to the stories?

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            • I remember bench seats! There were still around when I was a kid. I remember hearing about bucket seats as if they were a hot commodity when I was small, so that idea must have hung around for a while. Like, the classic 1980s T-top with leather bucket seats — that sort of thing.

              I’m not sure there is a feminist angle to the stories. They felt more honest than activist, like the author might be making a point.

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  4. The story about the father who’s just passed away sounds interesting. I like the idea that she looks at the experiences of the different siblings, who will have experienced him at different points in his life and therefore have different memories.

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    • I have just the one brother, and I can’t believe the way we remember things the same sometimes because we were so different and did such different things. How did we ever come together in our memories? I know it’s typically the opposite, though.

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