I have been looking into schedules. Even when we read physics, we inquire of each least particle, What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.
On the first of each month,
a guest writer
how he or she spends the day.
May 1, 2016: Jodi Paloni
I could not be more excited to introduce the next writer in the series–one of my best friends, Jodi Paloni. Jodi’s debut collection, They Could Live With Themselves, a runner-up for the 2015 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction, with the official pub date of May 3rd in honor of its publisher, Press 53, was released in April at AWP, where Jodi signed books until there were no more to sign.
Jodi and I met at VCFA in December of 2009, and I’ve been reading her wonderful stories ever since. I’ve listened to her talk about the town of Stark Run where these characters live and which stories to include in the collection and how to order them. I was on the phone with her when a picture of the gorgeous cover of the book arrived by email, and I could not wait to hold the book in my hands. But I didn’t start reading immediately. I wanted to save it.
Over the years, reading versions of these stories, I’ve always been partial to Molly, but I’ve never forgotten the Wonder Woman lunchbox and what happens at the pool and the park and the store. I’ve voted on endings and suggested titles, but I was not prepared for the powerful impact of reading these stories one after another, for the thrill of sighting characters from earlier stories in the story I was reading, and the pleasure of getting inside the head of a character I had only known from afar.
Jodi nailed these eleven stories–from the order they appear in the collection to the way she saturates moments in the stories in the present. I don’t know that I’ve ever read stories with such heart. If you haven’t read They Could Live With Themselves yet, you’re in for a treat.
Here’s a little preview that is a bit of a spoiler not because I tell you what happens in a story but because part of the pleasure in reading this linked collection is who we will run into next; so you may want to read the book before you read what I have to say about it.
Molly Sings the Blues: Molly grips the broom handle and sings to Billie Holiday. Her youngest son, Sky, has just graduated from high school.
Is it too late to learn how to sing, she wonders, to really sing, deep and throaty like Billie, the blues, to buy a piano, take lessons, make some strides to catch up, this one life, to draw herself from the well, draw the wilderness out of the woman within the wife, the mother?
Wonder Woman: Rory, a 9th grader who loves a chicken named Little One, is making a life-sized replica of Wonder Woman in 3-D out of chicken wire. Along the edge of this story, we see Sky and his dad running the annual rummage sale. When Melissa, a 10th grader, talks about getting out of here, Rory thinks,
I wonder what’s wrong with here. Stark Run is what I know, how the sky turns gray in winter, how the river rushes in spring. I’d miss how the night sky lights up with stars.
Deep End: The first sentence.
Too many kids bobbled and raced in the cloudy over-chlorinated water that Saturday afternoon for anyone to notice that Jillanna’s tiny brother, Elliot, had stumbled in over his head.
In this story we meet Meredith Wade, the young art teacher.
The Third Element: From the window of her studio, Meredith sees a kid poking around her back porch.
Watching him in secret reminds her of the time she first understood the pull of solitude. She shifts on her stool. When he turns and looks out over the yard, she recognizes him, Sky, one of her seniors from last semester.
Bench Girls: Sky’s father, Jack, tells this story. Molly is off doing a yoga internship, and he takes their granddaughter to the park.
He glanced back at the girls on the bench chattering like three sets of those trick teeth they sold at the hardware store at Halloween.
From Inside: Here we’re inside the head of one of the bench girls, Claudia, who’s inside a black bear costume as part of her community service. And now it is Halloween.
She strained to hear footsteps shuffle the leaves, her heart a toy drum. She felt the muscles in her legs contract, ready to spring. Was he coming? The man was late. The ache in Claudia’s hollow gut spread and rose and lodged, now an apple in her chest.
Ms. Bellamy: The star of this story is a beloved teacher a new principal is trying to force into retirement. Ms. Bellamy lives with her mother in her grandmother’s old house. She arrives home after a day at school and calls out, “Mother!”
“I’m up in the attic.” Her mother’s voice came fluting down the banister like fresh dust. “God, is it five? I’ll be along shortly.”
Accomodations: On a night of wintery weather, Wren, who we met in “Ms. Bellamy,” has locked up the general store, but she begrudgingly re-opens for a stranger.
He smiled and Wren witnessed spousal love in his soft expression, the kind her parents had shared when she was young, before her sister’s accident, before all of their lives took a tragic turn. She looked away so not to intrude on the man’s privacy or perhaps she looked away to protect her own heart. So deft she had become at shutting off the valve of her own pain.
Mabel, Mabel: The voice of Charlotte, who turns twelve during this story, will captivate you. Here’s the first paragraph:
Saturdays at our house can be sad and mean, although no one does anything on purpose. My older sister, Emily, and her boyfriend, Sky, sleep and sleep until the silence in the house wraps around my neck. When they finally get up, they feel too sick from Friday night beer games to write papers for community college. They lounge and talk about what they should be doing instead of doing it.
The Air of Joy: Addison’s wife, Ruby, told him she wanted to feel “the air of joy on her face.” Two days later she left him. In this story, where Wren peeks in the window, Ruby drops back in.
Her eyes were rimmed with the kind of exhaustion that Addison did not know how to show with his body, but he had felt it, fatigue as dark and deep as a cavern, endless tunnels of exhaustion, in those final years of the marriage.
The Physics of Light: In this final story, what we’ve been leading up to, getting into Sky’s head. In the words of Dave Jauss, who both Jodi and I were lucky to have as an advisor at VCFA,
[A] young man who aspires to be a photographer decides ‘to do a series, tell a story’ in ‘twelve images’ and ‘invite his audience to feel.’ That’s what Paloni does in this masterly collection of linked stories set in fictional Stark Run, Vermont…
For more about Jodi, check out her cool new website, created by the author/artist herself. And while you’re there, buy They Could Live With Themselves, read it, and then go back to buy some more to give to all your friends. And,
Come back on MAY 1st to read how JODI PALONI spends her days.