And Other Stories
(Autumn House Press)
Kathy Anderson writes about terrific people doing exceedingly bad things --- to themselves, to each other, to others. And no matter how formidably bad these characters, we manage to love them all. Even at their worst.
Take Josh, for example. He's fourteen years old. His father has just had a sex change operation. So we are at the therapist's office: Josh and his mother Sue Ann and Heidi, his, well, father-now-mother.
Josh wants to have --- has to have --- a tattoo. He's fourteen, remember? You know how they are about their wants, right? And the things he says to the old man, I mean, his once-father. The questions! His mother is now married to a woman, right. And if this new woman can mutilate his own body, how come this son can't get a tattoo on his arm, a big one, a raging bull running up his biceps and around and into his armpit?
These vital questions are sticky, and the session with the therapist is not going well at all.
"Call me Goat Boy," Josh said. "From this day forth, my name is Goat Boy. If he can change from a man to a woman, from Joe to Heidi, then I can do the same. I am officially changing my name to Goat Boy and my gender is half goat, half boy."
To say this little speech, almost the first in the story we get from this kid . . . to say that it's inspired is an understatement. Especially, since, as all parents know, a fourteen-year-old son is undeniably half goat, half boy.
"'I'm not paying good money for you to mutilate your body with tattoos like all the other losers,' Heidi said."
"'But you can mutilate your body and we're supposed to be all happy for you,' Josh said."
"We're not here to talk about tattoos, Josh."
§ § §
Kathy Anderson has the enchanting ability to pull us into a very odd situation, make it work, and then push it to it's furtherest (but natural) conclusion --- one that doesn't just evolve, but is right. Josh smart, and he is good with his words, stabbing the old man (old man no longer) again and again, right in the gut:
Hey Dad, how are you doing in there? You can come out now. Admit it was all a crazy mistake. Take off the makeup and stockings, chop off that hair, stop taking hormones because that's a losing battle. Hate to break it to you, Dad, but you still look like a dude. Your big feet and hands --- dead giveaway. What are you going to do --- chop them off too?"
My god, we think: one goes through a change of a lifetime, and here comes this . . . this creep, your own son, talking like this, in your face.
And he lies, too, the little rat. "Do you know what kind of shit I have to endure every day of my life," he tells them, "having a she-male for a father? Do you know what happens at school every day? Anyone else would have blown their brains out by now."
Only our omniscent narrator tells us, a page later, "Everything Josh had said about school was a lie. His friends were great. They said the right thing when they heard about his dad.They said they were sorry. It was like a dad dying, wasn't it Like what you say to a guy whose dad dies. Sorry for your loss."
This Josh is a pain-in-the-ass, and a prevaricator on top of it all. We want to strangle the little bastard, and yet . . .
. . . when he finally goes to get his tattoo, suddenly, with what happens, we are all for him, and his bull, "with curly plumes of smoke coming out of the bull's nose and his legs kicking up in the air." I mean, it is all so very juvenile (bravado, rage, smoke out of the nostrils), "On my right arm. Like I want his tail to end up in my armpit and the rest of him all over my whole arm. And when I move my arm, can it look like the bull is pawing the ground."
And the tattoo lady --- the girl, really, says, "Jesus Christ . . . I knew it. I knew someone would ask for something really, really hard on my first day. I might as well quit right now. I'm sorry man."
You can guess the rest. Just know that Anderson manages to cram into nine pages bewildered adults, the all-too-human nightmares, a montage of people like us caught in impossible situations.
§ § §
There are thirteen stories here, and, almost without exception, they tangle us up in weird situations that move nicely through the pages, almost always come to an honorable end . . . . "honorable" meaning true to that odd craft that is the modern short story.
My favorites are this first one, "Bull." Then, the salesman who sells doors and who takes his three whippets with him everywhere, the merry wit of "You Are So Beautiful, to Me." There's that baby in the art museum,"the little bearded baby, a girl in striped leggings and a raspberry dress, with curly blond hair on her head and on her face."
And, finally, dear Hawk Ann, the bartender in the gay bar: when she was a kid she had a friend who "had one mother and one father, not the parade of men that came in and out of Hawk Ann's house [with] a mother who named all her children for animals and birds like some kind of crazy person . . . " who would just babble to anyone, "I'm a natural mother. I love having babies, that's why I keep doing it. It's what I was put on Earth to do."
That's the kind of stupid shit Hawk Ann's mother proudly announced to strangers, to her welfare caseworker, to anyone who would stand still long enough to listen to her.
We start "Hawk Ann in Love" with a picture of a childhood that makes all that follows believable, so that when Hawk Ann falls in love with Fairfax, the one she meets at the bar where she works, the one who "kissed her on the lips right in front of everyone." We fall in love too. Not with Fairfax, but with our Ann's love of being in love.
And when it turns out that this is not to be because of the strange workings of nature (and the body), we feel abject too for what Hawk Ann has lost. Losing her love . . . and part of her self as well.
After her body ends up almost killing her (bodies can do that), and although she scarcely remembers her one great passion, the reader gets to remember it all: the woman "with lips that tasted like Limoncello." Hawk Ann may forget the loss --- pain can make you forget --- but we recall it quite poignantly; cannot begin to fail to remember.