Saturday, November 23, 2013

Hey, Wanna Read a Short Story?

I recently experimented with teaching my own fiction in my ENGL 1102 class. I found it oddly uncomfortable, not because of anything the students did or didn't do, but because I found it embarrassing to talk about my own work in front of a captive audience. I can do this all day long with an audience that has voluntarily appeared at a reading, but somehow opening up to my students seemed too self-serving to me.

When I thanked them for their participation, I told them it was a good experiment, but that I probably wouldn't be doing it again, they seemed a little taken aback. They talked about how neat it was to actually have the author around to ask questions of, and they encouraged me to give it another try. Later, I received several emails from them suggesting that instead of my whole collection, it might be easier to focus on just one or two stories, and they suggested, overwhelmingly, my story "Negative Space," one that is also pretty popular at readings.

Over at Authors Electric, where I do a monthly post, I have uploaded my keynote speech for the Georgia Highlands College inaugural Writers' Collaborative Conference, which I gave in Rome, Georgia, this past March. In it, I reference "Negative Space" and give some background into the story. 

It's also my only Thanksgiving story; I hope you enjoy it:

Negative Space

She had been gone two months when her mother called to invite me to Thanksgiving dinner. The invitation surprised me, though I suppose it shouldn’t have. From the time I met them, Jessi’s parents tried to make me feel a part of the family. On a cold day in February, eight months after Jessi and I met, we moved in together. I felt weird about going to her parents’ house to get her things, but as soon as I walked in, Grace gave me a hug and ushered me into the sitting room for coffee. Jessi’s father, Jimmy, met me in the kitchen. He stood over me in his dusty overalls and workboots, glowering from under his wide-brimmed hat with a look that said, “You must be the low-down son of a bitch who’s taking my little girl away,” and chewing on the remains of a cigar.

I tried to stammer a greeting, something to reassure him that my intentions toward his daughter were honorable (a tricky thing considering we were just about to shack up together). In the South, especially Owen, Georgia, it’s imperative for a prospective suitor to impress his intended’s father with assertiveness and confidence.

I stammered like Porky Pig and stared at the space between my head and the floor.

Then I noticed a callused hand stretching out into my line of sight, and when I looked up, he was grinning around his cigar. “Welcome to the family, son. Keep her straight, now.”

All that aside, I still felt awkward with the idea of spending Thanksgiving with the family of my now estranged wife, so I declined.

“Now, Aleck,” Grace sounded like she was scolding a small child for getting his Sunday pants grassy. “There’s no need for you to be spending the holidays alone.”

“I won’t be alone,” I lied, “I got some people coming over.”

I could tell Grace saw through my scam. I could picture her on the other end, leaning against the doorframe with the phone cradled between her shoulder and cheek as she stared sadly at my picture in the den holding her right arm across her chest so that her hand supported her left elbow while she idly twisted a gray-streaked strand of black hair with her left hand like a schoolgirl calling a boy for the first time, nervous and unsure of what to say. “Well, the invitation’s open if you change your mind...”

“I know. I just have these people coming.”

My mistake was deciding to go anyway. But you see, Grace was right. I didn’t need to be alone on Thanksgiving. And since my family’s gone and even the most anti-social of my friends goes home for the holidays, my only other option was to join the legions of losers, down-on-their-luck bowery bums, and other Edward Hopper extras at the Waffle House for the traditional Thanksgiving fare: scattered, smothered, and covered.

Grace and Jimmy met me on the porch, she with a hug and he with firm grip.

“Come on in here, Aleck; let’s get that chill off you. Everybody’s here but Jessi, and I expect her directly.” She ushered Jimmy and me in like a hen nudging her chicks into the coop.

“Gracious, Aleck,” she scolded as I took off my pea coat, “what have you been eating? You’re all bone and hair.”

“How you been keeping, son?” Jimmy asked, not giving me a chance to answer his wife. “You staying for the Tech / Georgia game this afternoon?”

“Is’at Aleck?” came a booming voice from the den. “I didn’t think you was coming.”

I looked at Grace and Jimmy as if they had spoken. “My ... uh ... friends had to cancel.”

“That’s what I figured,” Grace returned with a smile. “Go in there and say ‘hey’ to Uncle Birch. We’ll eat just as soon as Jessica gets here.”

There was a fire burning in the den, and Uncle Birch sat with his bare feet propped on the hearth, smoking a pipe, and staring into space.

“I saw that picture you took in the paper today,” he snapped.

Here we go, I thought as I entered the den and took a seat on the sofa. “You did, huh? What’d you think?” I knew the answer before I asked the question.

“Tell the truth, I didn’t think too much about it at all.” Birch made a face. “PETA [he pronounced the name as if it were something disgusting he found on his shoe] picketing the governor’s mansion about eating turkeys on Thanksgiving.”

“Well,” I said, trying to ward off one of Birch’s diatribes against the evils of the Animal Empire, “I guess they got a right to their opinion.”


There are phrases that do things to people. Words that can turn an ordinarily sane man into a raving lunatic. “Tax break” is one such phrase. “Communist Manifesto” is another. For my father it was “Left-wing liberal” or “equal opportunity employer.” Uncle Birch’s phrase is “animal rights.”

You see, Jessi’s great-uncle Birtram, who at seventy-one is the oldest living member of the Collins family and the acting patriarch, has been steadily losing his mind for as long as anyone can remember. He doesn’t rave. He doesn’t forget anybody’s name; quite the contrary, Birch Collins has the best memory of anyone I’ve ever known. He can remember the name of everyone he’s ever met and can tell you to the minute when he met them, the last time he saw them, and the details of any event in between.

No, Birch’s dementia takes the form of an irrational conspiracy theory. He believes, with a conviction bordering on the religious, that there is a conspiracy among the animal kingdom to overthrow humanity and rule the world. It began in the late sixties when in the midst of a raging mid-life crisis, Birch got hold of some bad acid while he was making out with a twenty-something political science major and listening to Pink Floyd’s album Ummagumma. The acid kicked in just before Birch did, during track six, “Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict,” and Birch watched his partner transform into an epileptic snake with a she-wolf’s head.

Since then he has done everything he can to stem the flow of this international conspiracy of the lesser species. In the early seventies, he lobbied to make George Orwell’s Animal Farm required reading in all grades because it “shines the light of truth on what’s really going on.” The mid-eighties found him launching a grass-roots campaign of one against the comic strip Bloom County because it allegedly supported crossbreeding among the species by having “an obviously in-bred penguin marry a beautiful young hippie girl.” He even credited himself with the strip’s demise five years later.

It’s no surprise, then, that Birch has been barely on speaking terms with his family since they became vegetarians.

Rather than respond to the “unneighborliness” of eating turkey on Thanksgiving, I sat before the fire, studying the den. Grace rarely lit more than one lamp, and the heavy curtains were usually drawn, giving the room a cozy kind of cave feeling. The stone fireplace took up most of the outside wall.

Above the fireplace hung the large Collins family portrait. The picture had been taken in front of the weeping willow in the backyard. Grace stood smiling shyly in the background with Jimmy on her right staring sternly into the camera and Birch on her left positively scowling (having decided, I suppose, that primitive animal worshippers were right and cameras really did capture the soul but uncertain whether or not this played into the lower creature’s hands). In the foreground sat the two sisters, Jessi between her mother and father grinning slyly at the cameraman with a come-hither twinkle in her eyes, and her older sister, Leslie-Anne, between Birch and Grace smirking mischievously.

I had taken the picture shortly after moving in with Jessi. Grace wanted me posed between the two daughters, but the camera was new, and I couldn’t figure out the timer feature. If you took the portrait out of its frame and looked closely at the left-hand side, though, you could just see the edge of my right sleeve in the negative space. To make up for my absence, Grace had stuck a black and white five-by seven headshot into the bottom right-hand corner of the larger picture.

Sitting proudly beneath the portrait on the right-hand side of the mantle was the framed GED Leslie-Anne had received the year before from Catagua Technical School. Across from this, Grace had placed Jessi’s Master’s of Arts degree in sociology. I smiled when I saw this, remembering the first day I had seen her.

I met Jessica Belle Collins when we were both kicked out of an introductory course on anthropological issues in post-modern and contemporary feminist sociology. On the first day, during a discussion on dating rituals, Jessi made the unfortunate mistake of referring to her gender as “chicks.”

“We do not,” Dr. Malcomb coolly informed her slowly cleaning his wire-rimmed glasses with a white handkerchief, “refer to women as ‘chicks.’”

Jessi looked down contritely. “I’m sorry,” she said quietly, “Broads, dames, skirts. Whatever.”

I was the only one who laughed.

My reverie was interrupted, however, by the sound of a car pulling into the driveway.

“That’ll be Jessi.” I rose from my seat.

Perhaps, I’d later tell myself, I should’ve actually told Jessi that I’d be joining them for Thanksgiving. I simply assumed her mother had cleared it with her beforehand. Of course, Grace may well have done just that, and then told her I declined. Either way, I’m sure she was just as surprised by my presence as I was by that of the skateboarder she brought with her.

The first thing you noticed about him was the three-inch strip of short, black hair extending from the forehead to the neck of his otherwise bald head and ending in a ponytail, which reached to the middle of his leather jacket. Then you noticed the metal chain connecting his left ear to his right ear by way of each nostril and his upper lip. Various other rings and bars and studs accented what was left of his face. He even had silver trinkets woven into his baby-blue goatee. I hated him immediately.

“My friend, Ratt,” Jessi said by way of introduction as she removed her fur-lined coat revealing a woven halter top and a black pleated mini-skirt. Patent-leather Mary Janes over black knee-highs completed her outfit. “Ratt, this is Mom and Dad.” She nodded towards Grace and Jimmy then motioned towards Birch emerging from the den. “That there’s Uncle Birch. Uncle Birch, this is Ratt. He’s going to eat with us tonight.”

Birch glared at the prepubescent punk and slowly mouthed his name.

“That’s Ratt with two t’s,” Jessi added reassuringly, “like the band, not like the rodent.”

Birch would have none of it, though, two t’s notwithstand-ing. He shook his head and snorted in disgust as he shuffled into the dining room, mumbling something about hell and handbaskets. Ratt said nothing.

That left all the introductions done but mine. There we stood in uncomfortable silence: me, my wife, and the prick. I could tell Jessi was uncomfortable, and even though I shouldn’t have, I felt sorry for her.

However, I couldn’t simply stand there smiling and pretend to be some friend of the family. I tried unsuccessfully to grin and be civil, but all I could do was mumble something incoherent and stick out my hand.

Ratt sucked on his whiskers, and grunted noncommittally, but otherwise said nothing. Jessi smiled at me as I slowly lowered my hand, and Grace ushered us into the dining room. I couldn’t tell, though, if her smile came from gratitude, discomfort, or humor. Maybe all three.

“I hope you don’t mind,” Jessi murmured to her mother as they entered the dining room, “but he didn’t really have anywhere else to go,” she leaned in towards Grace’s ear, “and I didn’t think he would come.” She nodded in my direction.

“That’s fine, sweetheart,” Grace said absently, glancing from her daughter to Ratt to me, “We can just pull up another chair.”

I looked at the place settings on the small table, and felt briefly like an intruder. Grace had prepared a Thanksgiving dinner anticipating only the immediate family. Now I was here unexpectedly, and Jessi had seen fit to bring her friend. Watching Grace examine me and the boy, I could all but hear her silently calculating whether there was enough food or not.

I took a mental count of all assembled. There was Birch sitting at the head of the table and trying not to stare too openly at my wife’s companion who had just taken the place beside him. Jimmy took the seat next to his uncle. I glanced at Jessi sitting to Ratt’s left then at Grace retreating into the kitchen. I stood uncertainly behind the only other open seat not wanting to take Grace’s spot.

“Here, Mr. Ratt,” Grace emerged from the kitchen with a folding aluminum chair, “you can sit here next to me.” Her face fell when she saw that Ratt was already sitting between her daughter and Uncle Birch. The young rodent merely continued to chew on his whiskers and said nothing, but Jessi’s eyes widened.

“That’s alright, Grace,” I volunteered before Jessi could speak, “I don’t mind sitting next to you.”

It was Grace’s turn to look disappointed, but only for a second. “Well aren’t you just the sweetest thing.” She patted my cheek and, after some quick shuffling of plates and silverware, placed the new chair to her right. Then she returned to the kitchen and brought out a little plate of sandwiches that she put beside Birch’s place.

“Them my meat sammiches?” He asked.

“They are.”

Birch lifted the top slice of bread off one of them and inspected the treasure within. “D’you remember to put the jelly on?”

“I didn’t forget,” Grace said, “but I didn’t do it either. You know what the doctor said.”

“Yeah I know what he said,” Birch rose from his seat and went into the kitchen, “and I’ll die and burn in hell before I listen to someone who donates money to the humane society.”

Grace just shook her head in exasperation and continued setting out the food. Shortly we could hear the sounds of Birch shuffling through the garbage can, and then he emerged from the kitchen carrying a white aluminum can with the word “MEAT” printed on it in large square letters. He looked at all assembled, smiled, and held the can aloft as if it were the Holy Grail and he were Percival returning from the quest. He took his seat and set to work spreading a clear gelatinous substance from the can onto his sandwiches.

“The jelly’s the best part,” he informed us solemnly.

After Grace had placed the food on the table and taken her seat beside me, Jimmy looked at Birch and nodded. Birch bowed his head, and we all took hands (I noticed Birch cringe before taking the prick’s hand).

“Our Heavenly Father,” Birch prayed, “thank You for this bounteous food and all Your many blessings. Please help us to mend our ways, which are evil in Your holy sight, and help us to be better stewards of your creation. In Your name we pray. Amen.”

We all repeated “Amen” and squeezed each other’s hands.

“Well,” Jimmy looked over the food spread out before him, “I reckon we can eat now.”

That’s when I realized that we weren’t all here. Five place settings, and Grace hadn’t planned on either Ratt or me attending.

“Where’s Leslie-Anne?” I asked.

There was an uncomfortable silence.

“She won’t be eating with us this year,” Jimmy coolly informed me.

Birch cleared his throat and looked pointedly away, mumbling.

“She’s eating with Denise’s family this year,” Grace added then slapped herself on the forehead. “Will you look at that? I forgot the main dish.” She rose from her place and once again disappeared into the kitchen. She returned almost immediately, carrying a platter upon which sat a strange looking pinkish white loaf, and set it in the center of the table.

Birch regarded this addition with a crinkled face and a scowl. “What the hell is that?”

“You know good’n’well what that is.” Grace again took her seat and flapped her napkin into her lap. “It’s the turkey.”

“The hell it is.” Birch was struggling to keep his voice calm. “It’s that damned turkey substitute. Where’s the meat?”

“I’ve told you before, Birch, you don’t have to eat the tofurkey. That’s why I made you the sandwiches.” Birch snorted in disgust, and Grace calmly dipped mashed potatoes on her plate, passed them to me, and turned to her husband. “Jimmy, please pass me the peas.”

There was an awkward silence during dinner. I know that family gatherings often degenerate into silence as each member slowly understands that the time spent away between holidays has done nothing but increase the generational gap between himself and his relations. In fact, it’s my firm belief that that’s why we have so many football games on holidays; it keeps this realization at bay. No matter how far we’ve grown apart over the last year, we can still stare blindly at the television screen and cheer for the same team. However, this silence sprang not from distance but from its opposite, and Grace did not allow television in the dining room.

“How’ve you been?” Jessi murmured as she reached across me to get a second helping of food.

“Okay, I guess.” I looked at the space between her leg and mine and wondered fleetingly if I could touch her bare knee. “You look nice.”

“Thanks, wanna roll?”

“Uh ... sure, darlin’. Where?” I wondered fleetingly how we’d get away without offending anyone.

“Right here, silly.” She smiled at me, and for a brief second, I was taking the family portrait again, madly in love, and a million miles away from nowhere.


“Right here.” She offered me a towel-covered basket with steam escaping. “A roll. Do you want one?”

“Oh! Yeah, yeah. Thanks.”

She frowned at me, shook her head, and turned back to her plate.

Birch had not taken his eyes off Ratt since asking the blessing. At first the old man had tried his best to be discreet, glancing at his neighbor only when taking a bite of food and then quickly scanning the rest of the table. Gradually though, Birch became less and less surreptitious until now, he glared openly at the kid with a look of mixed disgust and curiosity. This attention was not going unnoticed by its object either. After a minute or so of this scrutiny, Ratt set his fork down and stared defiantly back at the old man.

“Dude, what’s your problem?”

Birch jerked as if he’d been slapped. “Eh? You talking to me, sonny?”

“Yeah, man. Why you wanna keep staring at me? Didn’t your mama tell you it was rude?”

Jessi patted his shoulder and murmured something into his ear.

“Listen, babe. I don’t care if he is senile,” he shook her off and looked again at Birch. “That don’t make it right to stare.”

“Well,” Birch leaned closer to him. “You do have all that...” he waved his hand in the general vicinity of Ratt’s face, “stuff stuck in yer face. If you dress y’self up like a circus freak and go paradin’ down the street,” Birch took a breath, “and don’t charge nothin’, people will stop and look.”

“Birch,” Grace said softly, “let it go.”

“I’ll be damned if I will!” Birch tossed his napkin on his plate and glared at his niece. “You may want to turn a blind eye to what’s going on around here, but I won’t.”

“Not now, Birch,” Jimmy kept his voice even but firm.

“Why not now? You two want to pretend there’s nothin’ goin’ on, but I can’t live thattaway. One daughter a damned anteater livin’ with another woman like man and wife. What do you reckon they’re doin’? Playin’ tittly-winks?” The old man leveled a finger at Grace then moved it to Jimmy. “Y’all know how I feel about those shenanigans. I’m tellin’ you, homer-sexuality is just a plot to thin our numbers for the revolution by keepin’ folks from procreatin’. But don’t nobody listen to me. No sir, I’m just ol’Barmy Birch, but you’ll see.

“And you, missy,” he turned his attention to Jessi, now. “You broke my heart; you know that? Now, there ain’t no shame in leavin’ a husband. If two people cain’t get along, there’s no point in livin’ together. But shackin’ up with someone while yer still married is beyond the pale.” Jessi’s face drained, and she put her hands in her lap.

“You’re married?!” Ratt turned so quickly his chain flicked him in the right eye.

I cradled my chin on steepled arms and looked at my wife from the corner of my eyes. “So this is why you don’t return my calls, huh?”

“You’re married to this loser?!” Ratt’s chain flicked him in the other eye as he turned sharply away from Jessi.

Birch continued. “As if that wa’nt enough, though, this is who you choose to share yer bed with.” Birch waved a disdainful hand at Ratt. “A damned wannabe rodent. What’re you tryin’ to prove, boy? Why you wanna decorate y’self up like a goddamned porky-pine fer? And what kinda name is Ratt? Ain’t you got any human decency? Any pride?”

“That’s about enough, Birch!” Jimmy rose from the table and grabbed Birch’s shirt. “These are guests in my house, and you will treat them as such!”

Birch looked from his nephew’s hands to his face with an expression of pained betrayal. “You’re takin’ their side, Jimmy? Against your own blood?”

Jimmy released his uncle and took his seat with a sigh. “Jessi and Leslie-Anne are my blood,too, and their lives are their own.”

Birch quietly rose from his seat and pushed it under the table. “Well,” he said as he walked out of the dining room, “I should of expected as much from a couple of vegetarian collaborationists.”

We sat around the table for several heartbeats before anyone said anything; finally, Grace broke the silence. “Well, would anyone like some rhubarb pie?”

“I appreciate it, Grace,” I slid back from the table, “but I should probably be going. It’s getting late.”

Grace looked up at me from her seat then turned her attention to Jessi who was still sitting in her place and staring at her hands in her lap. “Are you sure, Aleck? I wish you’d stay.”

I knew then that Grace had set this dinner up for me. She knew Leslie-Anne wouldn’t be here tonight, and she still set five places. I looked down at her and knew that she had hoped that Jessi and I would reconcile, or maybe she’d been denying that anything at all was wrong. Probably both. Hope and denial are so frequently intertwined that one is often mistaken for the other.

I looked at Jessi again, then at Ratt sitting in my place. Grace may have wished for a reconciliation between her daughter and me, but I knew that it wasn’t going to happen. That bird had flown.

“I should go.” I folded my chair and leaned it against the wall. “I’m sorry.”

“Wait a minute, Aleck.” Jessi folded her napkin into her plate and pushed herself away from the table. “I’ll walk you out.”

“I’m sorry you had to find out like that,” she said as we stood on the porch looking out at the overcast afternoon sky.

“So, do we get one lawyer or two?” I stood on the top step of the porch not looking at her.

“I don’t want to talk about this right now.” She folded her arms across her chest and stood next to me. “Talk about something else.”

“How long has it been going on?” I looked at the space between the porch and my car and pulled a crumpled pack of cigarettes from my pocket.

“Since July.”

“Why?” It was all I could think of to say. “He’s what? Twelve?”

“He’s twenty-four, and I don’t know why,” I could feel her looking at me. “Maybe because he makes me feel real for the first time in my life. Everyone I know, except for Uncle Birch, goes through life like a zombie. They don’t act; they react, and sometimes not even that. Even you.”

“Oh, really?”

Her voice became more animated now. “Yes, you especially. You’re so busy looking at the world through your camera lens that you forget to actually interact with it. Everything’s a composition for you. Something to be studied, observed, and then rearranged into your idea of order.” She raised her hands as if to illustrate a point, and let them fall uselessly by her side with a sigh.

“I don’t know,” she continued. “Maybe it’s a safety mechanism for you or something. Like if you don’t interact with the world, it can’t hurt you. If you organize it yourself, it can’t control you. You always keep yourself aloof, Aleck, apart from everyone around you, and your were holding me apart right along with you. Maybe, I just wanted to be a part of life. I was tired of being just a picture for you to appreciate.”

I shook out a cigarette and tapped it on my palm, then lit it. I couldn’t think of anything to say, so I stood there for a minute, thinking about the family portrait. How I’d been unable to make it into the big picture, so I’d been stuck in later in black and white.

“Ratt treats me like a person. We do things just for the hell of it. When I met him, he was racing shopping carts with his friends down the embankments behind Kroger. I didn’t know him from Adam when he asked me to climb into his buggy because he needed someone to steer. We spent three hours just pushing each other downhill in the shopping carts. Just because it was fun. When was the last time you and I did anything just for fun? He’s good for me, Aleck. I’m good for him, too.”

We stood in silence for a minute, and I realized that though I had lived with my wife for years, I never knew her, but she understood me perfectly.

“What’re you going to do now? Where are you going?” She asked, taking my cigarette from me and pulling a drag off it before stomping it out on the porch.

“I don’t know. I’ll probably go to the Waffle House and then out to the studio. I still have some frames to fix for Saturday’s paper.”

I looked at her and smiled. “I’ll be fine.”

Jessi shook her head and went back in.

I stood on the Collins’ porch for a minute, thinking about what Jessi had said. Like so many of her explanations, her words seemed crystal clear as she spoke, but once she left me alone, they began to grow foggy and unfocused, leaving only the sensation that Jessi had a point, whether I could remember it or not. As I turned to go, I could hear the sounds of Jessi and her mother cleaning up after the aborted dinner while Jimmy, Ratt, and Birch cheered the Bulldogs on in the den.

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more, the full collection, Emily's Stitches: The Confessions of Thomas Calloway and Other Stories can found in Apple's iBookstore and at the following links:

1 comment:

  1. A super story, Lev. Funny, sad and really insightful about human relationships. The family round the dinner-table is wonderful: the characters are nailed so economically and Birch is a great creation, a real comic monster. The interaction between them works really well. The dialogue (I don't believe you picked all that up just through listening! It has the sure ring of originality and careful judgement) is simply great and, though I only have second-hand knowledge of the accent, I can hear them talking. It's ideal for reading aloud. I loved it and I can see why it's so good for these lucky students to hear it in performance. Yes, I too feel slightly awkward talking about my own work before students who are there for something else, although, again like you, have no qualms about it when I've got an audience in front of me who expect it. And why shouldn't I? Talking about other writers is always best if you can demonstrate you can do it yourself.