Issue #242: Michael Hawley’s That’s How You Dance the Mambo

I’ve lived in New York City for twenty years, and I’ve seen it change an awful lot. But say that to someone who’s lived here for thirty, forty, fifty years or more, and they’ll laugh, roll their eyes, and wave your observations way. Then they’ll tell you what real change looks like.

The main character in Michael Hawley’s “That’s How You Dance the Mambo” is Albert, an elderly man who is doing his best to live in the moment, even while the moment rains plaster dust down on his head. Most of his dear friends have shuffled off the mortal coil. His landlord would love for him to give up his apartment. His nephew wants to move him into a retirement home outside of the city. And his long-time neighbor, Nestor, has found a hundred-dollar bill and wants to go to dinner—but that means venturing out into a landscape neither one of them feels comfortable calling home.

“That’s How You Dance the Mambo” is a rendering of a present that’s out-of-true with its past. It’s a faded and crumbling love letter to New York City, and it’s a story, as the author says in our Q&A, about resilience. Let the dance lesson begin.

 

Issue #241: Sara Batkie’s Departures

Have you ever read someone else’s mail? Have you ever presented yourself to people as someone you’re not? Have you ever stood over a dead body and pretended to have feelings for it? If the answer to all three of these questions is yes, you are one sick puppy. You might also have stepped out of the pages of our new issue, “Departures” by Sara Batkie.

Betsy is a quiet, well-meaning individual. She’s the person you pass in the hall of your apartment building and don’t want to say hi to because she looks a little too fragile for a casual exchange. She looks—at least in my reading of her—like the deer in the headlights who wants to bolt but also wants to have a chat. And if you’re her neighbor, she might just know more about you than you would ever suspect.

“Departures” is both creepy and fun. It’s both a psychological profile and a how-to manual for deception (imagine Tom Ripley but with none of the malice). It’s “a love story of sorts,” the author says in our Q&A—even though, when asked to sum up the story in one word, the word she chose was “disguises.” However one describes it, I think this story by Sara Batkie is a knockout, and I’m delighted to be putting it into your hands.

Issue #240: Gwen E. Kirby’s Mt. Adam at Mar Vista

Our new issue, “Mt. Adams at Mar Vista,” was sparked by a conversation the author had with a group of friends following a school shooting that had been in the news. The fact that she now can’t recall which school shooting is as chilling as the story she’s written.

No one dies in this story. There’s no bloodshed, there are no weapons, there’s no mass evacuation. We’ve recently seen what an amazing force young people can be when they’re galvanized by a tragedy—and what’s all the more impressive about them is that they’re kids. Brave, angry, focused, articulate kids. In its way, “Mt. Adams at Mar Vista” underscores that by investigating what it’s like when kids in a similar situation try to get on with the business of being high school students.

As Gwen E. Kirby says in our Q&A, this is not “an explicitly political story.” At the same time, it revolves around a topic that, against all reasonable thinking, has become politicized. When what happens to one of us can happen to all of us, when what happens to some of our kids on an average school day can happen to any of our kids on an average school day, and we disagree on whether or not that matters—our definitions of winning and losing need to be redefined.

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.

Issue #238: Josh Russell’s The King of the Animals

Around twelve years ago, I was visiting New Orleans and stopped in Faulkner House Books (a wonderful bookstore located on a street called Pirate’s Alley—who could resist?), and while I was browsing, it started to rain. I mean, really rain. Sheets and sheets of water falling straight down out of the sky, pummeling the Quarter. I’d just made a purchase when the deluge started, and I stuck around to see if I could wait out the storm. For about half an hour I talked with the store’s owner, Joe DeSalvo, and he did what good booksellers do: he recommended and sold me books. By the time the skies cleared, I walked out with, I think, five books under my arm. One of them was a novel called Yellow Jack by Josh Russell.

I started Yellow Jack on the plane ride back to New York and finished it soon after. (It’s a stunningly good novel—I highly recommend it.) Jump forward twelve years, and a short story comes my way called “The King of the Animals,” by none other than Josh Russell. One of the many great things about reading: I felt like I was bumping into an old acquaintance.

“The King of the Animals” is one of the funniest and strangest stories I’ve ever read. It’s set in the present day, in a world that looks an awful lot like ours, and while there might be a character in it who’s far more familiar than you’d ever want him to be, I promise you he doesn’t get any actual screen time. He sets a lot of terrible things in motion, but this story isn’t about him; it’s about love, family, survival, and, as the author says in our Q&A, innocence. If you aren’t familiar with Josh Russell’s writing, settle in for the weird and charming ride that he’s about to deliver. We at One Story are honored to put this new work of his into the hands of our readers.

Issue #237: Faint of Heart by Amanda Rea

At the beginning of our new issue, “Faint of Heart” by Amanda Rea, a young woman named Nora finds a child cowering, nearly naked, in a doghouse. Something horrific has happened, something unthinkable—but, as we soon find out, things could have been much worse.

The events that give this story its dark side have all occurred before the first sentence. What follows is a life lived in the wake of those events, and that life is Nora’s. Peripheral to a crime that’s now in the past, she carries on, works to pay the bills, searches for love, and settles into middle age. And then, one quiet afternoon, the past does what it does best: rears its head.

I was surprised when I first read “Faint of Heart” by the deft handling of the movement of time, and by the seemingly obvious and yet complicated layers of emotion that echo from a single event as years unfold. I was surprised even more to find out, in our Q&A, that this story was inspired by something Amanda Rea experienced firsthand. She’s a show-stoppingly good emerging writer, and we’re excited to be publishing her in One Story.

To hear Amanda Rea read from and discuss her story, please go here.

Issue #236: Guerrilla Marketing by Sanjay Agnihotri

Our last issue of 2017 comes from one of our debut authors, discovered by contributing editor Will Allison, so I’m turning the helm over to Will to introduce you to “Guerrilla Marketing.” Make it so, Will! –PR

Representations of South Asians in American culture have come a long way since Apu, the Kwik-E-Mart clerk on The Simpsons, first manned the cash register in 1990. Back then, there were few Indians in American fiction, film, or TV; they were usually relegated to supporting roles; and they tended to be convenience store workers, taxi drivers, or doctors. Today, however, actors of Indian descent—from Mindy Kaling and Priyanka Chopra to Aziz Ansari and Dev Patel—can be seen in a range of prominent, non-stereotypical, starring roles, and fiction writers such as Akhil Sharma, Kiran Desai, and Jhumpa Lahiri have reached a broad audience with their books.

Even so, I’d never encountered an Indian character quite like Vikram, the protagonist of Sanjay Agnihotri’s first published story, “Guerrilla Marketing.” Vikram is a 57-year-old former accountant from Baroda, India, who is struggling to survive as an immigrant worker in Parsippany, New Jersey. In American culture, the sort of suffering and exploitation Vikram endures is perhaps more commonly associated with undocumented workers from Mexico and South America—but in the case of Vikram and his peers, the exploitation comes not at the hands of white Americans but from other Indian immigrants who are higher up the food chain.

As Agnihotri acknowledges in his author interview, it’s a troubling story that risks sentimentality. Luckily for us readers, Agnihotri resisted the temptation to portray Vikram as a noble, suffering immigrant. Instead, Vikram is more of a sad sack, a guy with his own raft of bad habits, delusions, prejudices, misguided ambitions, and conflicting desires. In other words, he’s a real person on the page. We are excited to present another One Story debut, and we hope you find Vikram and his story as unforgettable as we did.

OTS 53: Our New Lives by Helen Coats

When I first read Helen Coats’s “Our New Lives,” I recognized a version of myself twice over. The first recognition came because the young man in the story, Jeremy, has suffered the loss of a friend and doesn’t know how to grieve because he feels partly responsible for his friend’s demise. I experienced something similar when I was sixteen. Jeremy’s guilt is ill founded (as was mine), but he doesn’t have the means to grasp that, and he doesn’t reach out to anyone for help. He just stews and suffers. To paraphrase the author in our Q&A, his guilt actually gets in the way of his grieving. The manner in which this is handled in the story is impressive—all the more so because we’re seeing Jeremy through his sister’s eyes.

The second sense of recognition I had was in the depiction of Jeremy and Heather—younger brother and older sister. Heather wants very much to be there for Jeremy, but life (high school graduation, college) is pulling her away. The relationship they had when they were younger has to change in order to survive. That’s a perfectly normal thing, but knowing it doesn’t make it any easier. When my sister graduated from high school and left home for college, I felt one of my first pangs of looming adulthood. I felt like we were both becoming grownups—her because she was on the brink of being one, and me because, as the youngest, I was about to be the only kid left standing, so to speak, and who wants to be that? Time to grow up. It was no picnic for either one of us, suddenly being apart, but we did what people do: we evolved, and we found our new, adult relationship.

Jeremy and Heather are at the very early and painful stages of finding their new relationship in this story, and Helen Coats has written beautifully about it. I hope you enjoy “Our New Lives.” I think it’s a story that will resonate with many readers, and one that bespeaks a wonderful writing life for Helen.


Issue #235: Pups by Kate Folk

This month’s story — featuring both otters and squids, along with some human beings — was found and edited by our wonderful contributing editor Karen Friedman, so I’m turning over the intro duties to her. Take it away, Karen! — PR

Of the thousands of decisions we make every day a few are good, but most are meaningless. And then there are the bad ones—the decisions that haunt us, shaping our lives in ways we can’t foresee. At our best, we face the consequences of a bad choice head-on and try to minimize its impact. At our worst, we ignore what we have done.

One Story’s latest issue, “Pups” by Kate Folk, introduces us to Roe, a woman seemingly determined to allow life to happen to her without the responsibility and culpability that comes from making decisions. While Folk provides the reader with a sense of Roe’s potential, she also casts an unblinking eye at the effects of Roe’s passivity and the way it enables her to feign intimacy, even at the cost of her own happiness. Early in the story we learn Roe is pregnant, the result of a misguided and drunken one-night stand. Roe’s unplanned pregnancy raises questions that range from the practical to the political to the downright moral.

Over the past two years I’ve had the pleasure of reading a number of Kate’s stories, and I am thrilled to introduce her to our readers with “Pups.” Kate has an immense talent for creating flawed but sympathetic characters. Her women, in particular, defy easy labels and expand our understanding of what it means to be truly human. I hope you love this story of motherhood, agency, and otters as much as I do.

To read an interview with Kate about the story, please visit our website.

OTS 52: Bulletin Board Dragon by Lilly Hunt

In junior high school, I knew a boy with a heart condition. I knew a girl with progeria. I knew a boy who couldn’t stop tapping his pencil on his desk because he honestly felt like he would die if he did (this was pretty disruptive during a pop quiz, as you might imagine). And I knew a girl who believed she was close friends with a very famous rock band that lived on the other side of the world, and that she and this rock band had shared many adventures together. The people around these teens who were roughly their age fell into one of two categories: 1) those who allowed them to be who they were without giving them a hard time, and 2) those who gave them a hard time. Why everyone couldn’t have fallen into the first category remains a mystery to me.

The new issue of One Teen Story is called “Bulletin Board Dragon.” It’s about two teens who live next door to each other but have never met (until now). Each one of these teens has a particular condition not shared by the other, and each one of them does her or his best to understand and accept the other. Is it easy? No. Is it a smooth process? No. Are they successful? You’ll have to read to find out—and keep in mind, stories are always about the complications before they get around to the resolutions (if there are resolutions to be had).

“Bulletin Board Dragon” is one of the winners of our Teen Writing Contest, and its author is a teen named Lilly Hunt. She’s a wonderful writer, and after you read the issue you should treat yourself to our Q&A, where she discusses, among other things, what it was like to write a short story with one character who is not only invisible but a figment of the imagination.