One Story Issue #266: Ian Bassingthwaighte’s “The Crucible”

Our new issue was acquired by contributing editor Will Allison, so I’m passing the mic to him to make introductions. The floor is yours, Mr. Allison! –PR

Twenty years ago at a writers conference in California, I was lucky to make friends with an energetic, irreverent woman, Jane, and one of her teenaged daughters, Rose. This was around the same time my wife and I were deciding if and when to start a family, and Jane, having a big head start in that department, shared a lot of parenthood wisdom I was grateful for.

A few nights after I got home from the conference, Jane sent a funny email telling me to disregard anything positive she had said about having kids. Her daughters were driving her crazy; she couldn’t get any writing done. Her best parenting advice at the moment, she said, was don’t do it!

Twelve hours later, Jane emailed again to say she didn’t mean it. In fact, she wanted to take back every negative thing she had ever said about being a parent. That afternoon, she wrote, Rose had been driving with a friend when an oncoming truck crossed the center line and caused a collision. Both girls were killed.

Ever since then, I have struggled to get my head around what Rose’s death and its aftermath must have been like for Jane. If I’m being honest, the thought of it all was often too terrifying and too heartbreaking to even contemplate, especially after my wife and I had a daughter of our own two years later.

The shock and pain of Rose’s death came back to me as I read “The Crucible,” by Ian Bassingthwaighte. What opens as the story of conjoined twins Paige and Emma becomes the story of their parents, Alistair and Johanna, when, only three paragraphs in, the girls die of pneumonia at age 12. What follows is an exquisite meditation on grief and loss, limned by Bassingthwaighte’s distinctive, bittersweet humor. More than anything else I’ve read, the story made me feel like I was getting a glimpse of what Jane might have gone through in those awful first days after Rose died. What struck me most is the story’s intricate intertwining of love and loss. The strangely beautiful ending—which finds Alistair and Johanna breaking into the local mortuary—reminded me of how Jane ended that second email. “You and Deborah should make your family just as you want it,” Jane wrote. “No guts, no glory.”

I hope you find “The Crucible” as memorable and moving as we did here at One Story.

One Story Issue #265: Mary Grimm’s “Fate and Ruin”

Hi Folks! Our new issue–which is one of the funniest stories I’ve read in a long time (and we could all use some funny right about now, right?) was edited by contributing editor Will Allison, so I’m handing the mic over to him to make the introductions. Take it away, Will! — PR

Dorrie, the main character of Mary Grimm’s “Fate and Ruin,” has gotten herself into a pickle. She left her happy life as a bartender in sunny Palm Coast, Florida, to move to Cleveland with Jerry, a guy she met during a night of barhopping. But not long after she and Jerry get to Ohio, they break up, and now Dorrie finds herself stranded in Cleveland, living alone, trying to figure out what comes next.

Unfortunately, finding direction has never been Dorrie’s strong suit. It doesn’t help that her social circle is mostly limited to three people: Rose, her sad-sack neighbor; Jerry, her ex; and Bob Lilly, a self-styled polymath that Dorrie has a history with. But at least Dorrie has a job. She works as the assistant office manager at a slightly shady day care that gets some unexpected news:

“The whole day care had their feathers in an uproar because some celeb was going to bring their kid there while they were shooting a movie in Cleveland. I didn’t get excited about it because a) the celeb wasn’t going to be hanging out at the day care; and b) how big of a celeb could they be if they were coming to our day care, which I said, and which made me massively unpopular. But come on—it was not going to be Chris Pratt’s kid or Chris Hemsworth’s or any of the Chrises. It was going to be the kid of Girl in Restaurant or Guy Who Gets Pushed Out of Airplane.”

That voice—Dorrie’s frank, irreverent running commentary—is the irresistible current that carries this story along. It’s also what made the story so unputdownable for me, especially when four-year-old Minkie arrives at the day care and attaches herself to Dorrie, leading to one of the funniest and most tender endings I’ve read in a long time. As a fan of Mary Grimm’s work for more than thirty years, I’m very happy to be sharing this story with you.

One Story Issue #263: Shannon Sanders’s “The Everest Society”

Contributing Editor Will Allison procured and worked on our new issue, so here he is to introduce. Take it away, Will!PR

If you’ve ever lived in a high-rise, you’ll appreciate the frustration Liv MacHale and her neighbors feel in “The Everest Society,” by Shannon Sanders. The elevator in their building is out of order—indefinitely—so the residents have to schlep up and down as many as seven flights of stairs every time they go out.

To make matters worse, Liv and her husband, Dante, want to adopt a child, but first they—and their apartment—have to pass muster with a social worker. Liv, in her obsessive preparation for the home visit, fears that the building’s lack of a working elevator (not to mention its dingy stairwell) will reflect poorly on them. Easygoing Dante, on the other hand, doesn’t see what the big deal is.

This is but one of the many ways in which Dante irks Liv: He says weary when he means wary. He fails to notice the hanging produce baskets she lugs home and installs in their kitchen. He gets frisky while she’s fretting over their cracked bedroom ceiling. And when Liv mentions Margaret, the social worker, Dante can’t even place the name.

If Liv and Dante’s relationship sounds prickly, it is—but only sometimes. They actually have a pretty great marriage with lots of give and take, which Sanders renders with uncommon grace, generosity, and humor. The result is one of the most charming fictional marriages I’ve encountered. It’s also one of the most convincing, with all of the messy richness that characterizes real married life. Sanders is a rising literary talent with a gift for writing big-hearted stories, and we are thrilled to present her work in the pages of One Story.

And here’s a timely P.S. from our Managing Editor, Lena Valencia:

I live in a 60-unit apartment building in Brooklyn. My husband and some neighbors recently started a building-wide Facebook group in the hopes of creating a network of support for those who might be more vulnerable to COVID-19. As I was placing flyers outside doors, alerting the residents to the group’s existence, I couldn’t help but think of the way Shannon Sanders so expertly captures the nuances of apartment living  in “The Everest Society,” and how—whether it’s a broken elevator or a global pandemic—neighbors come together to help each other in times of strife and upheaval. It’s a message that felt especially timely at this moment. I hope you enjoy this brilliant story as much as I did, and remember to take care of each other. — Lena

One Story Issue #261: Josh Riedel’s “Midnight Sessions”

Our new issue — as disturbing as it is fun, and funny — was commandeered and edited by contributing editor Will Allison, so the enviable task of introducing it goes to him. Take it away, Will! — PR

I was aware that Josh Riedel had worked at Silicon Valley startups in a former life, so I wasn’t surprised to find that “Midnight Sessions” (One Story issue #261) dishes up a zesty critique of corporate technology run amok. I was, however, surprised and wholly captivated by the fantastical world that blooms within the story’s pages.

Set in the not-too-distant future, “Midnight Sessions” takes place on the vast campus of a mega-corporation called Cleo Corp, which produces, among other things, cheap cosmetics known to cause strange side effects, such as the stars that sparkle and swirl beneath Moot Mangorski’s skin after he uses—and becomes addicted to—Midnight Sessions cologne. But when Moot sues, the company’s crafty CEO, Mr. Sackamoray, convinces Moot to come work for Cleo Corp, where his perks include a free condo and a lifetime supply of the now-banned cologne.

Moot’s job is to “cure” others who suffer side effects from Cleo Corp products. These “subjects” are paid to spend three nights in a suite on campus, where sophisticated instruments collect samples from their bodies and analyze them to find a cure. (Of course the samples are secretly used for R&D purposes.) Moot has mixed feelings about his job, and he feels even more conflicted after meeting Flux, a subject whose use of Forest Fresh—a budget toothpaste—causes his teeth to sprout green, moldy fuzz. As Flux’s side effects intensify, a complicated relationship develops between the two men, and it becomes unclear if Moot will succeed in saving Flux, or vice versa.

I won’t give away more of the plot, but it’s a wild ride, and I promise the final scene is one you won’t soon forget. We’re very excited to be presenting Josh’s work here at the start of his career, and we hope you find “Midnight Sessions” to be as much a feast for the imagination as we did.

One Story Issue #258: Becky Mandelbaum’s “Say Uncle”

Our new issue was edited by the great Will Allison. Here’s his introduction. -PR

The first time I read “Say Uncle,” I was touched by the sweetness of the love story Becky Mandelbaum tells. Normally, as a reader, that’s exactly what I hope for: to be moved. In this case, though, I also felt a little dirty, because the so-called love story in question involves Dan, an unemployed thirty-something, and Hollie, a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl. Clearly, the relationship is all wrong. So how could I feel sympathy for a pedophile? How could I sort of even like the guy?

Of course, this is what good fiction does. It challenges us by allowing us to inhabit viewpoints that are radically different from our own. It’s easy to be repelled by the idea of Dan and Hollie together; it’s harder to dismiss Dan’s humanity once you’ve spent time in his shoes. And so “Say Uncle” engages in a daring high-wire act, creating sympathy for Dan while also not letting him off the hook.

I wasn’t surprised to encounter this rich complexity in a story by Becky Mandelbaum. Her collection, Bad Kansas, which received the 2016 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, is full of stories that are as lively and hilarious as they are challenging and unsettling. Here at One Story, we are thrilled to be sharing her work with you.

This story contains scenes of child sexual abuse. We encourage you to read our Q&A with the author, in which Mandelbaum addresses her reasons for investigating the topic and how she approached this taboo subject matter.

Issue #251: Natalie Serber’s “Children Are Magic”

Our new issue was acquired and edited by our laser-eyed  contributing editor Will Allison. Here he is to make the introduction. — PR

The story in our latest issue, Natalie Serber’s “Children Are Magic,” chronicles a day in the life of Barrett Lee-Cooperman, a stay-at-home mom in a well-to-do California beach town. It’s a busy day. First, Barrett must get her four daughters off to school, including her youngest, River, who ends up going to preschool naked. Barrett must feed her chickens and her pig, Esmeralda, a Mother’s Day gift from her short, slight, pale, balding, OB-GYN husband, Martin. She must ascertain the owner of a racy bra she finds dangling from the pole beans in her garden. She must stop by the dry cleaners, feed store, liquor store, and a board meeting at the Homeless Garden Project. She must mediate Martin’s flirtation with Rowena, their young, blond nanny with toe cleavage. She must have sex with Martin in a position she’s not wild about. She must attend to her own needs. She must pick up River, who insists, in front of her preschool teacher, that Barrett isn’t her “real mommy.” She must welcome another pig—a guinea pig—into the family. She must host a dinner party for her cooking-group friends, some of whom she finds intimidating. At dinner, she must relive the teenage memory of being sexually assaulted by a musician in a nightclub bathroom. Then she must endure the late-night wrath of her oldest daughter, Sheila, while drunk. And those are just some of the highlights. Suffice it to say, “Children Are Magic” is brimming with enough life and love and humor to fill a novel, but it never feels too full, thanks to Serber’s confident storytelling and delectable prose. I was hooked from the opening line to the last. In fact, the first time I finished this story, I immediately turned back to the beginning and dove in again, hungry to spend more time with these characters. I hope you’ll feel the same.

Issue #250: Matthew Lansburgh’s “Latvian Angel”

Our new issue was procured by contributing editor Will Allison. Here’s Will to introduce you to “Latvian Angel.” — PR

I’ve always been a sucker for stories in which characters write letters to each other. As a literary device, the epistle is deceptively simple. Letters are a form of first-person narration, allowing characters to bypass a story’s principal narrator and speak for themselves. The catch—the interesting part—is that letter writers tend to be unreliable first-person narrators, misrepresenting themselves in order to influence the letter’s recipient.

The letters in our latest issue, Matthew Lansburgh’s “Latvian Angel,” offer a fun case in point. Klara Ozols is a poor Latvian villager, born with wings on her back, who seeks a better life by advertising herself as a mail-order bride. Ezra Vogel is a lonely Long Island accountant in search of a wife. When Ezra answers Klara’s ad, the two strike up a long-distance correspondence full of cagey spin. Will Klara’s letters convince Ezra that she is the woman of his dreams? Will Ezra’s letters convince Klara that he is the wealthy, handsome, kind suitor he claims to be?

If you’ve read Lansburgh’s terrific debut, Outside Is the Ocean, winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award, then you know his stories offer up a delicious blend of humor, love, and sexuality, with sympathetic characters often undone by their own wayward desires. “Latvian Angel” is no exception. We’re excited to finally showcase Lansburgh’s first-rate storytelling and sparkling prose in the pages of One Story.

To read an interview with the author, please visit our website.

Issue #249: Uche Okonkwo’s “Our Belgian Wife”

Contributing Editor Will Allison acquired and edited our latest issue, Uche Okonkwo’s “Our Belgian Wife,” so the pleasure of introducing it goes to him. The floor is yours, Mr. Allison! –PR

The story in our latest issue hit home for me as a parent. My sixteen-year-old daughter and I are currently negotiating the fraught dance that is a child’s transition to independence. My daughter is already very much her own person, but the impulse is still there for me to meddle in her affairs, to try to solve her problems and fix her mistakes.

The Nigerian mothers in Uche Okonkwo’s “Our Belgian Wife” suffer from the same misguided impulse. Marigold, an impoverished widow, only wants what’s best for her daughter, Udoka, and Marigold’s friend Agatha only wants what’s best for her estranged expatriate son, Uzor. So the two mothers conspire to arrange a marriage between their children.

Never mind that Udoka and Uzor are young adults, capable of managing their own affairs. Never mind that they don’t know each other. Never mind that Udoka is busy pursing a college degree. And never mind that she is already engaged to Enyinna, a devoted but poor shopkeeper. As I watched the mothers’ meddling spiral out of control, I was reminded of times I’ve tried to engineer good outcomes for my own daughter when all she wanted was for me to butt out. And I was reminded that things rarely went as I planned. I can only hope that I will have learned my lesson by the time my daughter is Udoka’s age. In the meantime, I invite you to join me in appreciating the humor and heartbreak that Okonkwo’s all-too-human characters wreak upon each other, and in welcoming a strong and distinctive new voice to our pages.

To read an interview with Uche Okonkwo, visit the stories section on our website.

Issue #247: Christopher Santantasio’s “Persistence”

Our new issue was selected and edited by contributing editor Will Allison. Take it away, Will! — PR

The first time I read “Persistence,” by Christopher Santantasio, I was reminded of one of my favorite novels, William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, in which the narrator is guilt-ridden over his failure to help a childhood friend fifty years earlier. As a reader, I have rarely encountered such a profound sense of regret on the page, and as a writer, I continue to be inspired by it.

Maxie, the narrator of “Persistence,” is haunted by a similarly powerful guilt. In 1960, when Maxie was twelve, her mother died, and she moved with her father to a small town in upstate New York. Maxie’s life in Clyde’s Creek was not a happy one. The only bright spots were the piano lessons she received from her teacher and time spent with her sole friend, Honey.

Honey’s life was no picnic either. As Maxie came to learn, Honey suffered severe abuse at the hands of her domineering older brother, Hubert. And as the only person who knew Honey’s secret, Maxie was the only person who could help. However, exposing Honey’s secret threatened to upend Maxie’s life as well. Suffice it to say that the choices Maxie made failed Honey entirely.

Like the narrator of So Long, See You Tomorrow, Maxie understands that her childhood actions were driven not by malice or heartlessness so much as by fear, confusion, and a child’s limited understanding of the world. Even so, Maxie struggles to come to terms with her behavior. In reading about this struggle, I found myself haunted by some of my own childhood mistakes, and I bet you will too. I also hope you’ll agree that Santantasio, despite being new on the literary scene, captures Maxie’s guilt with a sensitivity and depth that would make William Maxwell proud.

To read an interview with the author, visit the “Persistence” page on our website.

Issue #239: Eric McMillan’s We Go Together

This month’s story comes to us via contributing editor Will Allison, so I’m turning the bridge over to him for the introductions. Take the com, Will! — PR

I was first drawn to Eric McMillan’s “We Go Together” by the story’s setting—a U.S. army base, 1996, near the Korean Demilitarized Zone—and by the author’s résumé, which includes ten years of military service in Bosnia, Korea, and Iraq. I was hoping the story might inform my understanding of present-day tensions between the United States and North Korea, which it did. But it turns out the story’s chief mission is much broader: an exploration of race relations within the U.S. Army.

“During the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq,” says McMillan, “I was assigned to a battalion support platoon. Most of those soldiers were African-American, eighteen- to twenty-year-olds. I was a white, twenty-four-year-old college kid in a position of power. If that scenario sounds inherently problematic to you, it is. But in the army, you’re not supposed to act like it is.”

Though “We Go Together” is set in Korea, McMillan draws heavily upon his experience in Iraq. The story’s central relationship involves Lieutenant Woods, a white officer assigned to transform a motley, mostly black platoon, and Sergeant Burrell, a respected black section leader who chafes at Woods’s by-the-book leadership style. When crisis befalls the platoon, the two men’s capacity to work together is put to a high-stakes test.

Along the way, the story mines the inherent tension between the army’s ethos of meritocracy and its reluctance to acknowledge institutional racism. There’s also a lot of fascinating army-speak, which is its own kind of poetry. We hope you enjoy McMillan’s ear for language—and his story—as much as we did.

You can read our Q&A with the author here.