Pushcart 2011: Joe Meno – “Children Are the Only Ones Who Blush” from One Story

Art school is where I’d meet my sister each Wednesday, and then, the two of us would travel, by cab, to couple’s counseling. Although Jane and I were twins, by the age of nineteen, she was already two years ahead of me in school, and because both of our parents were psychiatrists and because I had been diagnosed with a rare social disorder, a disorder of my parent’s own invention, Jane and I were forced to undergo couple’s therapy every Wednesday afternoon. The counseling sessions were ninety minutes long and held in a dentist’s office. As both of my parents were well-known in their field, they had a difficult time finding a colleague to analyze their children, and so they were forced to settle on a dentist named Dr. Dank, a former psychiatrist who had turned his talents to dentistry. He was an incredibly hairy man who smoked while my sister and I reclined in twin gray dental chairs. Dr. Dank did all he could to convince me that I was angry at my twin sister for being smarter and also that I was gay.

Let’s start with weird.

I’m a big fan of weird. But there are different kinds of weird. There’s weird as in surrealism, magic realism, fantasy/sf, and the other ways of altering reality. Then there’s the weird of everyday life. I get the impression that what we have here is the everyday weird (granted, really really weird, and creepy as well, but obeying the laws of physics) perceived by the narrator as surreal. Siblings in couple’s counseling. A psychiatrist-turned-dentist conducting said counseling in dental chairs. And that’s just the first paragraph – we haven’t even got to the balloons yet.

Fact is, to a kid whose parents are manipulating reality the way this kid’s parents are, life must seem very surreal, and reality is a, well, fluid concept.

Jack, the narrator, has a fear of bodily fluids, and as a result he’s flunked gym class so is still in high school at 19. His gym teacher will give him a pass in exchange for valium. In spite of his parents’ and sister’s insistence that he’s gay, Jack seems to have very few sexual leanings at all, though given his aversion to bodily fluids, it’s hard to tell. And, by the way, the fact that he’s still standing while subjected to his family is a testament to the tenacity of his mental health. Then he meets Jill Thirby, an art student trying to make things fly with balloons.

A little bit of Up there. A little bit of Jack and Jill. A little bit of “Sweet Jane” by The Velvet Underground, whose lyrics supply the title (I’m not familiar with the song but I’m sure it’s important). A lot of subliminal incest – I don’t think it’s an accident he meets Jill at art school, where he usually meets the sister he’s in couple’s counseling with.

Yep, weird.

I’m favorably disposed toward Joe Meno because of his “An Apple Could Make You Laugh” from Zin’s Second Person Study. And I’ve been panting over One Story about as much as a non-canine can (I’ve encountered so many wonderful stories from there recently, both in the mag itself and in these “best” collections). But this story just seemed pointedly weird, with no real reason for it to be. It’s enjoyable, sure. I can get behind weird. But for me, it’s weirdness that doesn’t go anywhere, and it’s not on the level of the other stories I’ve read in this Pushcart volume.

Of course, I’m sure I’m overlooking something very important. Or several things.

For one something, it was written for live reading at an AWP conference session with Dorothy Allison and ZZ Packer, which Meno describes in his One Story Q&A as influencing the story in some general ways. Then there’s the song. And in his comments on the Akashic Books website review of Demons in the Spring, the collection containing this story, he says, “The problem in the story is a simple one: the unending conflict between imagination and intellect, the wisdom of art versus the wisdom of intelligence.” I completely missed that. I feel pretty stupid. I thought it was about how shrinks have their heads up their asses most of the time, and how parents with enough letters after their names can be as abusive as they want and get away with it. And about how some kids blossom in their own time, when they’re lucky enough to run into someone on the same wavelength.

I love what Meno says about short stories in that same One Story Q&A: “The biggest advantage and disadvantage in working with short stories has to do with the size of the audience reading them: it seems that the short story is going the way of poetry, or jazz music, enjoyed by a highly informed, smaller audience. I think in some ways it’s incredibly liberating and allows for much more experimentation. The era of being able to live off the money you make writing a short story is all but over, which means any story you write is more an expression of your art than it is a way to pay the bills. There’s also something ridiculously archaic about short stories, which I really love.”

Now there’s something I get about the difference between the wisdom of art vs. the wisdom of intelligence.

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