Death is
Not an Option

Suzanne Rivecca
She writes of caseworkers and social workers and the "Keystone Mental Health Helpline" where people call in to say that they are going to kill themselves and you are expected to be an "Empathetic Listener." But if you don't get it the helpline orders you to go for free counseling ("Healers need healing too") so you meet with Colin at the university counseling center.

Colin is blind and he introduces himself and then he introduces you to his dog, Monty. He is, you find, "A blind man with a dog who is beginning to resemble him --- frowsy, leaking sighs and grunts, unnervingly mild."

And after awhile (questions about your sex life) you ask Colin "What do you see? ... is it all black, like shoe-polish-black?" And "Do you see the outlines of things, in shadow?" Or light?" He responds firmly, "That's not what we're here to talk about."

And then you ask that he take off his glasses, and

    He stiffens. "No," he says. He opens his mouth and closes it. You hear the moist squish of his lips separating. "Come on," you say, "I want to see your eyes."

    There's a silence. The he says, "I'm sorry, but I think I need to ask you to leave..."

§   §   §

This Rivecca is a string-puller, a jerker-around, an explosion waiting to happen, and sometimes she is good --- very good --- at it. Her stories are these helpers, all around us: hospitals and doctors and social workers and teachers and counselors and landlords and Catholic nuns. If we have any complaint about her story-telling it would have to do with pacing ... getting the machine cranked up. Because short stories have to have a quickening to them --- in every sense of the word "quick" --- which means cutting the facts to the bone, but leaving a trace of the meat.

It gets so that sometimes we want to ask Rivecca to take time off --- to take some time to bone up on those who do the short story craft best: Barthelme, Hemingway, Bolaño, Kafka, Raymond Carver (and Raymond Chandler). We want her to leave Hawthorne and Dickens and Thomas Mann behind.

For when she is good, she is very good; but sometimes she gets tangled up in her plot, which makes her take too long to get to the punch-line. Like good jokes, every short story has to have a punch line.

"It Sounds Like You're Feeling" (the one about the blind counselor and that other counselor who sees too much) works because the narrator, like the author, is intent on pulling our chain (bugging a blind man; telling him she wants to see his eyes! Really!).

There are a few other diamonds here ... like "None of the Above," the very last story in the batch. It's a dream: the perfect pitch, the curve, the hit. Alma the teacher suspects that one of her students is being brutalized at home, for the boy Peter comes in with "puncture marks" on his wrist. But as we all know, a teacher cannot make these charges lightly. Police, administrators, social workers, and lawyers, she knows, will soon be involved.

"The flesh surrounding the mark on Peter's wrist was bright as Kool-Aid," she notes.

    If only he had a black eye. Or a limp.

Alma asks him discreetly about his home life. She meets with his parents at a parent-teacher conference. They look --- well, how should abusers look? --- they look "normal." Finally, after pussy-footing around, she asks about the "scratches" and "the puncture marks."

His mother says he "fiddles with things." That she will be more watchful. And, when, later, Alma confronts the boy, he finally confesses to everything that is happening to him. It's the fault of his tiger. "I have a pet tiger at home." A Bengal Tiger.

After fretting (we fret too) and without invitation, Alma goes out, finds his house, goes in (he's alone), pushes herself past him, asks again about the scratches.

"I already told you," he says. She sits down on the couch in the living room. She, like Oedipus, is hell-bent on getting to the truth.

At one point, she turns, "following Peter's gaze:" finally to behold a tiger cub, motionless, sitting on the demarcation between living room and hallway."

    The cub was more than half the length of Peter. Alma couldn't tell if it was changing position or if she was imagining it. The air around it shimmered queasily, like a hologram. Then it really did begin to move, stalking slowly and without sound, and Alma, frozen on the couch, watched it come closer: its stiff white whiskers, rigid as quills, the satiny, blockish mitts of its paws, the polar ruff around its face and the spine snaking across its back, painterly black stripes on either side, and finally the fiery liquor of its small eyes, black-rimmed, staring into hers.
--- Leslie Seamans
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