by Claire Kruesel
The title of this web rove derives from the first story here, “Amateur Dramatics,” in which the mundane outfits itself in what-ifs. “It’s possible that if [my mother] hadn’t had that first marriage,” the narrator posits, “she wouldn’t have died of a heart attack in later life. She might have died of something more interesting, something my father could have built a story around.” These what-if’s are briefly enticing for their exoticism but still mundane at the core.
In the middle of winter—white shovel-fulls freshly gifted onto the sidewalk—it’s hard not to relate to this hobbling kind of grass-is-greenerism. I just want back the dandelions, the ability to walk without fear of shattering a kneecap. These pieces all channel that longing, that sublime exchange of dark little things, that ability to rescue story from death or absence. And they all hold out for the belief in expansion, even as the world huddles cold.
“Amateur Dramatics” by Jonathan Lee (in Granta)
In this story, wry philosophy unfurls between odd normalcies: a dog named Potato and a hypochondriac with a real ingrown toenail. “There are certain ethereal things which, if you place your faith in them, return the favour by explaining everything else. Genetics is one. God is another. The big bang. Novocaine.” Little by little, like how the dentist chides you to slowly open wider, this father-son exchange is the perfect prescription for opening up.
“Aubade with Burning City” by Ocean Vuong (from Poetry)
Just the epigraph—which explains the haunting connection between an April war maneuver in Vietnam and Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas”—is enough to relate this poem to stark winter, to its internal grief. Vuong weaves the lyrics seamlessly between deceptively concise observations like “When the dust rises, a black dog/ lies in the road, panting. Its hind legs/ crushed into the shine/ of a white Christmas.” Like a city littered with “Snow shredded/ with gunfire,” this “Burning city” confuses the senses, and thus brings us closer to a different—a more sacred and horrible—kind of opening.
“Unreliable Tour Guide: A Plan B Essay” by Robert Anthony Siegel (from Ploughshares)
Anyone who’s struggled with unemployment or, really, any sort of purgatory from purpose, can identify the saving genius of Siegel’s “Plan B.” Translating as a tour guide for Japanese tourists, he begins with apology, bowing: “‘Please accept my deepest apologies for not being Japanese… It’s true that I’m only an American, but I will nevertheless try my best.’” Mediating between “translating other people’s desires and describing the world as [he] saw it,” Siegel’s “Plan B” permutes like the questionable tours he provides, until, at the end, he opens the curtains to an in-between that feels a little more true.
“Wordless” by Jason Shults (from Birkensnake 6)
This short fiction explores the non-void after thought but before words. A boy raised in the wild confronts his own in-between-ness when a dead human shatters his view that humans must be immortal, or “at the very least superior to his kind of creatures, the mere four-legged kind that fed on one another for survival.” The boy’s alternate education foils conventional school desks and dictionaries as we wonder—and he feels—what is the word of a howl?
“Statutes” by J. P. Grasser (from Ninth Letter)
In the previous story, a boy speaks canine; in this poem, a bird speaks Medusa, stiff human: “You are petrified;/ so am I. That’s the toll. I will die, and you will still/ be there, with birdy-bones reformed as pencil-lead…” Grasser’s precise language ensures that communication always breaks, and will never stop trying; that what matters is the opening, even if it closes in stone.
“Robots Make Babies” by Rachel Adams (from The Collagist)
Let’s end on something a little less serious, but nevertheless dark, malleable, and undefined. What happens when you seed imperfection into a perfect system? “Babies you could put in a Mardi Gras King Cake, babies you could love through a magnifying glass.”