by Rio Liang
Mark Budman’s “Paradise Recovered.” We follow a woman on a Seaways ferry; we know little about her aside from the fact that she does not speak English as a first language, and that she has a poet lover. Though he is absent, we come to understand that the relationship was not a particularly loving one (he’d never looked at her face, doesn’t even tell her where he lives; there is also a mention of her being slapped “into silence,” which raised my eyebrow). Interesting how the woman is truly self-effacing (she views herself as “ugly”), a true subordinate. The perfect Eve just as in “Paradise Lost.” The poet lover doesn’t necessarily align with the devil, but rather John Milton himself, that debatable misogynist who might, according to certain interpretations, have viewed women as wicked. Interesting short short.
Peter Tieryas Liu’s “The Wolf’s Choice.” Heartbreak sends online video game programmer Keith wandering aimlessly for eight months throughout Asia. His soul-searching brings him back home to America a different man, literally. Feeling like “a roach who woke up one morning and found he’d metamorphosed into a human,” he opts for plastic surgery on his face, a drastic measure that frustrates his family and leads to his termination from his job. A messenger from human resources who hands him his pink slip, Nikki, takes him out for a pity drink, and also because she had been harboring an attraction to him. At one point in their ranging conversation she, having once worked in an epidemiology office, mentions the disease lupus, whose victims as the name implies bloat to look wolf-like. We see the parallel between the lupus patients, their faces bloated into unrecognizable versions of themselves, and Keith, himself a deformed version of his previous self. Having had downed one too many drinks, she proposes they leave for his home. Any other man would jump at the opportunity, but the malaise brought on by Keith’s breakup with his ex, May, is deep-seated. He declines the proposal, an understandable choice for him to make (“the wolf’s choice”), but which of course outrages the spurned Nikki. Mr. Liu does here a great job of rendering Keith’s reverse metamorphosis, imbuing him with an “off” quality; still recovering from heartbreak he can’t help but be removed from the world. The story is nicely splattered with memorable peripheral details that though not directly part of the plot indirectly influence the mood of the story (or one’s reading of it), i.e. the heaven/hell bit during pre-surgery, the virus analogy the VP mentions (which echoes later in the form of Nikki’s mention of plagues/diseases), the spiderweb-trapped bird, the quirky mixing of ketchup with mustard. A somber and richly textured story.
Amanda Yskamp’s “BTU.” Three sections. First in the perspective of an old man, Jerome, saving his paraplegic wife Edna from a burning house; he has been “stockpiling,” though we are unsure what and for what. In the second section, a firefighter speaks with a neighbor on the aftermath of the fire. She fills him (and us) in on the strangeness of her nextdoor neighbors; interestingly, this neighbor hadn’t even known there was a wife. In the final section, we are in Edna’s perspective. Through her we find out Jerome’s paranoiac view of the world (“the world is so dangerous for him”), and that he’d been stockpiling gun powder (hence the title of the story, and hence the fire caused by its explosion). Edna, always the rescued (presumably Jerome had been trying to protect Edna from the world; though the effect is that of creating a prison for her, especially with all the barbed wire he’d set up), this time rescues her addled husband. …Interesting connecting vignettes; I wonder what you, the reader, may have taken away from the story. Often these short short stories can have the make-up of a black hole. So dense yet so tightly packed, though often so perplexing.
Greg Oaks’s “Aggravated Theft.” What does the catastrophe that ensues from the pairing of a veritable bad girl and a ho-hum good guy look like? Well, here it is, in full display. J.T. (the bad girl) and Tommy (the good guy) have broken up because of their incompatibility, but both are left with residue from the relationship. With her, it’s “anger,” at least according to her new doctorate-wielding husband, Jack Delaney. WithTommy, it’s the fear of being exposed through the ridiculously and embarrassingly immature love notes he’d written for her when they were together. Knowing the layout of Jack’s house, Don Gifford, a once-janitor and now bum with a score to settle with his former boss Jack, helps Tommy break in to the house to retrieve the notes (along the way running across Jack’s secret animal torture experiments). They of course get caught, and when given an ultimatum–to turn in Don and hold himself inculpable or not–Tommy chooses the latter, not taking the opportunity to for once be the “bad boy” that could be conceivably a good match to J.T.’s persona. In the end, Tommy remains a good guy out and out, and preaches the gospel of Don, whose oddball claims about Jack’s animal experimentations (oil-producing moths being primary among them) had heretofore been dismissed by everyone on the island. …Many funny moments throughout. Though I found the return of the moths in the end a bit too symmetrical, I liked how the story in the end became not just a solidification of Tommy’s personality, but also a redemption of Donny the madman.
E.M. Schorb’s “Red State Blues.” Today is the birthday of a young prostitute working at a bar called the Battle Flag. She’s faced many tragedies in her so far short life, namely the death of her lover/trick David and son Lee, both victims of a meth lab explosion. She hasn’t got much going for her, having abandoned what were once her aspirations of being a teacher, except the prospect of another (probably dubious) man walking into the Battle Flag to sweep her away, of “somebody walking on water.” …Interesting how our narrator, perhaps too young to be jaded, comes across with a rather likeable/readable idealism. Another good short short story.
Rosebud Ben-Oni’s “A Way out of the Colonia.” A loss-of-innocence/awakening story involving a child named Oni, who is shown by her ailing mother their gitana (gypsy) family’s former home at the outskirts of their Matamoros colonia. Unable to afford to keep their land, the family was driven out six years ago by the “gringos” who left no trace of their former home, erecting newer houses in its stead. The mother, known only in the story as “the woman,” had fought to keep their home, and in her current frail state (perhaps a result of working at the colonia’s unsanitary maquiladoras, or manufacturing plants) to this day remains haunted by the loss. Ms Ben-Oni nicely parallels her with a walking cane the woman’s father (“the old man,” as he is referred to) had carved out of a webworm-infested sapodilla tree that had just recently been bulldozed, a fate similar to that met by the family’s old home. Oni (who is interesting to note as the only named character in this piece) watches her grandfather whittle down the sapodilla branch, expecting to see in the process the exposure of a spirit strengthened by the hardships it has had to endure. But she only sees weakness in the stripping bare of the wood, which nicely connect to the end of the story, in which Oni helps sponge-bathe her rail-thin mother, who resembles in her naked state the stripped sapodilla bark. Where one expects earned durability through much “fight,” there is only weakness, a loss of dignity. What a frightful reality for a child like Oni to open her eyes to. …A deeply sad and well-woven story, with some memorably arresting moments (i.e. the ocelot attack on the horse which led to the old man’s imprisonment, and the taunting children living in the sewers who feed pelicans stomach ache pills).