Fate and Ruin
by Mary Grimm
Issue #265 • May 15th, 2020•Buy Now!
All that week, Bob Lilly was working on the gas tank of his car, which had to be replaced. He was doing it in my driveway because he lived with his sister, and she wouldn’t let him do it at her house. He was the smartest person I had ever met, which didn’t mean that he was in any way a success in life or had as much sense as my cat.
Inside, I was doing the dishes and making dinner. I had calculated that the gas tank was about fifteen feet away from the kitchen. Bob was smoking a cigarette while he wrestled with the clamps that held the tank on. Supposedly, the tank was empty. I hadn’t asked Bob about it because I knew he would say that it was perfectly safe. He would quote statistics about people who replaced their own gas tanks with absolute safety. Seventy-eight percent of these people would have been smokers, and they would have come out of the process unscathed.
Mary Grimm is the author of a novel, Left to Themselves, and a story collection, Stealing Time, both by Random House. Her stories have most recently appeared in The New Yorker, South Carolina Review, and Greensboro Review. Currently she is working on a novel set in 1930s Cleveland. She teaches fiction writing at Case Western Reserve University.
Will Allison on Fate and Ruin
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.
Q&A by Will Allison
The second was a memory from long ago, when a friend of mine did in fact replace his gas tank in my driveway. I imagined Dorrie looking out of her kitchen window at the gas tank. Who was she looking at? As she and I watched, Bob Lilly leapt into being, smoking a cigarette and spouting off random facts.
It occurred to me that I’d set up a sort of triangle—Bob Lilly, Jerry, and Dorrie—and that maybe I needed to resolve that in some way. But how? At that point, I did a close reading of my own story draft, looking at all of the mentions of Bob and Jerry, counting them up and actually making a list, and then sort of analyzing them for mood and content. It became obvious that Dorrie and Bob should be having some kind of a moment at the end, and finally I started to see how I could finish it.
For me, the story is about Dorrie, who is a gloriously flawed character, someone who keeps trying even when nothing seems to work, who is never going to give up, and who has a sardonic running commentary going on in her head at all times.