by Rio Liang
Part II of my review of the Santa Monica Review spring issue. Yes, it’s already summer, but literary journals never go out of season. Recapture springtime and read the latest SMR. For Part I of my review, click here.
Greg Bills’s “The Boy in the Tree.” Our eyes are directed toward a little black boy, not yet five, unkempt, and in dingy pajamas, perched upon a tree on a Los Angeles street. We glimpse him during a snippet in time before this tree and the house it shades beside it have been burnt to the ground. His mother, we are told, looks upon the boy as an annoyance and as such provides only the minimum of care for him, diapering and bathing him only on occasion. He is in essence a poster child for negligence. But as with any attempt at humanizing, there is always backstory, and here we are left to connect the mother’s abuse of her son with the abuse she suffered from her own father, that of a sexual kind. Her son was a product of not just rape, but incest. The story delves deep into the boy’s family history, citing how the tradition of negligence stemmed back to his father/grandfather’s mother (the boy’s father/grandfather thought the boy’s mother a whore, presumably because of the way the father’s/grandfather’s own mother had been in fact a prostitute–a disrespect we come to understand that started from the mother and trickled down to the daughter). And behind this was yet another layer to the foundation of self-destruction–racism faced by his great-great-grandmother during segregation-era Louisiana–that itself is further reinforced by the most profound source of harm: the boy’s heritage rooted in slavery. All of this history makes up this boy in the tree. (In a great three-paragraph section, Mr. Bills writes: “So, the boy in the tree. / Thus, the boy in the tree. / Therefore, the boy in the tree.”). Unfairness begets unfairness; the child does not deserve to be unloved just as much as his mother did not deserve to be destroyed by her father, and so forth. It’s a sad existence for this boy, further devastated by the revelation that his mother, unable to cope with her son acting as a perpetual reminder for her own rape, burns down the house and the boy’s tree beside it. But amid the grim picture Mr. Bills has painted for us, there is hope that lies ironically in that very element that can’t be understood in the boy, the aspect that perhaps makes him what he is: “The impulse to be a boy in a tree.” It’s what makes a man sturdy and endure generations of the kind of destruction cataloged by this story; the survival mechanism that spurs the victimized to keep going. …Ultimately a successful story, first examining on a general level what causes child neglect, then focusing on this one child’s personal/ancestral history. The use of the Q & A format I thought worked well. And I liked the aside earlier on about intending to engage in yet withholding from a self-conscious diatribe on writers’ arrogance about presuming to know people like “colonizers of imaginary countries,” as well as on the arrogance of impersonation (the narrator explains his reluctance: “[H]ow else can we live in the world among others except by imagining the life inside another person… And if it is presumptuous to try to reckon with the boy inside the boy in the tree, what sort of greater failure is it not to try?”). With this set up early on, I thought it was rather deft to have Mrs. Walter inserted toward the end: She represents “everyday people” who wish to empathize but just will never be able to understand the full scope of the boy’s problems, unable to have the panoramic view afforded authors in their presumptuous quest to understand humans.
Racelle Rosett’s “Moving Waters.” Winter Bloom (nee Susan) is an actress, who at the age of 50, leaves her husband Howie for a woman much younger than her, Aviva, a name which in Hebrew means “spring.” To Winter, it’s a match meant to be, just based on the beautiful coupling of their names (despite the fact that “Winter” was a name adopted). They have a son, Noah, aged 10. It’s actually through him that Winter had met her new partner, as Aviva was a nanny to one of Noah’s classmates. Winter and Howie try to make their divorce an amicable one, though he is reluctant to let her go. After all, he “regarded his wife and son as a dream woken up to.” In one of my favorite passages, Howie and Winter are in separate rooms waiting to finalize the get being prepared, and Winter “want[s] him near her now; to help her leave him.” Afterward, she goes on a “secret mission” to get a mikvah, a ritual purification via bathing in water. As she undergoes the ritual, she is not just physically immersed but also flooded by memories of Howie and their son. The climax of the story is a memory of the family at synagogue, and she was coming up to the bimah for an aliyah. As she moved away, like a ship in water, she watched her son and husband together, a unit separate from her. The whole mikvah experience, meant to be cleansing, overwhelms her, and she leaves. …Interesting piece. I liked the progression of the story towards the mikvah, which proves to be an ordeal for Winter. The story isn’t about her future, nor her and Aviva, but rather the past and family she’s leaving behind she is drifting ever further away from.
Scott Bransford’s “Crystal’s Kid.” Crayton is a meth addict, just like his mother Crystal. Kicked out by his mother when he turned eighteen, he now faces another eviction, that from the cabins that the Salvation Army has been trying to sanitize of meth addicts. In the cabins’ place, the Salvation Army plans to build a new career center, in its continuing effort to set people like Crayton on the right path. But Crayton won’t budge from his lifestyle, just as he refuses to leave the tract. His friend Three however is a convert, which leads them on two diverging paths. Having squatted throughout winter, Crayton comes across Rook, a junk hauler he’d met as a kid and found cool. He is a healer of birds. He had equipped, for example, an injured owl with a prosthetic talon. He keeps various birds and rehabilitates them. But the years have been unkind to Rook. He is now an emaciated version of himself, unlike the more intact version Crayton had seen when he was a kid. He also had his aviary of sorts taken down and his birds euthanized. The only evidence of his past as a bird healer is a lone osprey he’s been taking care of, a bird that had lost all its offspring. He devises a plan to simulate a hunting-conducive environment for the osprey. Crayton and Rook entice Three away from his job and his sobriety with a vial of meth, and the three of them acquire fish tanks from Chinatown. The rest of the story involves two violent and graphic (but fittingly so) scenes: The first is one in which the osprey kills a struggling living fish, the bird’s warrior spirit revived (a scene that really sticks in your mind). Which is a setup for the more violent scene to come in which Rook, having been found out by the authorities for his meth use, engages in a bloody standoff. He is subsequently killed, and his osprey put down. But Crayton and Three move on, having earlier been ushered by Rook away from the house, steering them away from the line of fire. …I really liked the grittiness of this; the descriptions of the wasteland Crayton inhabits are so effective. And what an interesting irony to have Rook be a rehabilitator of birds, as the many meth users around him make attempts at their own rehabilitation. The story definitely whets my appetite for reading more from Mr. Bransford’s short story collection.
Sara Flood’s “Heartworms.” Glen and Cheryl come home from a dog show only to find that their house has been raided by the “Memory Bandit.” The robber, oddly enough, only steals “sentimental junk,” as Cheryl puts it (in one of my favorite moments in the story, she likens the Bandit’s selective stealing to “kids’ old coloring books where you have to find the differences between two pictures. They’re always trivial things: extra petals on a rose, a candy bar, a bowtie.”). A dynamic soon becomes clear between Glen and Cheryl: He’s clearly the more sentimental–he’s shattered upon the discovery of his tie with the text “Number One Dad” cut out of it, as well as the disappearance of their rooster spoons, a wedding present from his mother. And she’s more the “Oh well” type, dismissing his sentimentality in irritation. In fact, she finds it grating that he always makes something out of everything. Her only concern, in contrast to Glen’s many, is if she had earlier mailed off the letters on the counter, or if the Bandit had stolen them. In a funny reversal, Glen concedes to her point of view of shrugging off his attachment to the stolen belongings–and in a switcheroo, she takes on his sentimentality. She comes across a dog collar, their old basset hound’s, who had died of heartworms (“Home is where the heartworms,” Cheryl quips, haha). This accidental discovery prompts her to remember having to put it down, and her sadness over having to do so. She weeps at the loss, now seeing the loss of Glen’s memorabilia through his perspective, and she insists he tell her the backstory of the rooster spoons. …An interesting story. I thought at first that adding the Memory Bandit into the story was gimmicky, but his inclusion in the story actually works; he acts as a catalyst for the two characters to ultimately “mourn” their losses in the end together.
Erik Rangno’s “The Front Yard.” I really liked this. Dave is recently divorced and subsequently loses his lover Joan, who had been battling cancer. Except she didn’t succumb to that illness, but rather to an allergic reaction caused by a bee sting. Dave, who had been taking a shower at the time, was the first to see her dying on her front lawn, followed by the neighbors, who would concoct their own embarrassing eyewitness versions of the scene. As he copes with this loss, his ex, Allison, sends over their daughter Cassie for a visit. Both mother and daughter are icy to him; he had after all cheated on Allison with Joan. Cassie is especially distant, someone he can’t connect with, can’t understand; he wonders, why was she asking him about baseball all of a sudden? They go to a wilderness park, hoping to bond. While there, a photographer asks Cassie to pose for some brochure pictures. She takes photos with a boa named Rose before before deciding to go home, which is earlier than Dave had expected, as he had wanted to take her to the observation tower and have some spontaneous father-daughter moment. A livid Allison calls Dave after Cassie returns home to her. Cassie had reported to Allison vaguely about Rose, and also how her father had forced gum on her, the result of which was an explosion of gum in the wash. Allison says, on behalf of Cassie, that this is the end; no more. It isn’t until a bit later that we find out that the gum in the wash was from a gum-chewing and boy in Dave’s neighborhood who had had an outing with Cassie at the nature center the day before father and daughter went. (The boy also played baseball, hence the earlier posed question to Dave about the sport). The boy explains to Dave that Cassie flashed him and urged him to peep through binoculars at the very observation deck Dave had planned to take her to. With wife and daughter just like distant ghosts (earlier, in one of the story’s best lines, Cassie had told her father, “I see us all haunting each other”), he goes to Joan’s house across the street, to visit another sort of ghost. He lays on the same patch of grass where Joan had died as he thinks, “Any neighbor, parting a shade or opening a garage or front door, would have no choice but to see me then. Such a beautiful ending; there’s something just right with bookending the story with the lawn. There’s actually a somewhat “off” quality to this story as a whole, but in a way that makes it so intriguing. Definitely check this story out.
Diane Lefer’s “The Tangerine Quandary.” I am absolutely in awe of this story, which was rightly saved for last. It’s a long one (40 pages), which somehow feels just about the right length for it. Theo Carlisle is an Oxford scholar who has just published a book about an overlooked female physicist named Dr. Anne Easley. It’s far from a bestseller and his status remains unchanged as a nobody. The book is a source of irritation for Liza, an investment banker whom Theo had interviewed during the writing of the book; Anne is her aunt. Though she had drifted apart from her, not visiting her for several years, she wants to sue Theo for having exploited Anne. The particular passage in the book that rankles Liza is about a time in her childhood–back when Liza was close to her Aunt Anne–when she came down with a fever and her mother had set dead flowers beside her bed. When she awoke however the flowers were no longer wilted, and she attributed their revival to her aunt. What’s so mad about Theo’s book is that, referencing this child’s wonderment at an adult’s nonexistent magic, he refers to Anne as the Messiah. Which is attention Anne appreciates, though finds somewhat bothersome. She is a dismissed scholar, having once worked for the government to develop weapons, but due to unfortunate circumstances was branded a Communist sympathizer and thus denied her security clearance. (She had written an epigraph for a book with lines borrowed from what she’d thought was Shakespeare but was in fact by Karl Marx; also, her lover Marius, the only man who ever respected her as a woman, had been rumored to be a Communist spy). Anne’s life is marked by several devastations: her multiple sclerosis, her niece’s abandonment of her, and also having to move into an assisted living facility, forcing her to let go of the only creature that had accompanied her in her solitude all this time, her cat Minou. The three main characters converge at the assisted living, where Theo tries to explain the science and the philosophy behind his book. He talks about how “models…in being mere approximations are always lies.” He talks about a teacher likening a tangerine, round and three-dimensional, to the Earth, but then having her students view the world through a map, flat, one-dimensional. This is what he calls the “tangerine quandary.” But then what’s the alternative? To tell them to just accept through faith? This is the very thing Theo attempted to tackle with his book. Soon, Theo starts to unravel, exposing a tragic figure behind the writer with highfalutin ideas. His mother, he explains, had died without his knowing. “When she was gone–she was the origin, and without her, it was as though his very existence was thrown into doubt. He experienced the emptiness of matter…. Lost in the absence of atoms.” He presents Anne a cat with the greenest eyes, which in actuality is caused by jaundice due to liver cancer, and draws a gun. He asks Anne to revive the cat, just as she had those flowers from Liza’s youth. In a great climax scene, Theo shoots the cat before skittering away. Though jolting, the experience unexpectedly revives Liza’s love for her aunt, and she decides to enfold Anne back into her life. …I am just so in awe at Ms. Lefer’s ability to thread together this wonderful plot. What a beautiful story with characters rendered with such devastating poignancy. I truly couldn’t stop reading. Especially with almost every other line of the story consistently drawing my interest with its elegance. There are just so many sterling moments all throughout I want to point out here but cannot due to space constraints. But some standouts: the Turkish boys on a cliffside looking below at the European women sunbathing; the metafictive bit about “supernal radiance”; the foresaken triboelectric sequence that acts as a metaphor for Anne and Theo; Anne’s mention of Golgotha and how Liza thinks, “Vinegar could be a mercy, not a cruelty. Not as pleasant to drink, but it puts an end to thirst much more effectively than water. A kindness.” A very high recommend.
Stay tuned for more literary reviews this summer. If you have any suggestions for any lit mags or journals you’d like to see reviewed, let me know!