Love cracked across Pete Wender two days after his forty-seventh birthday, when the medical center he worked at as a technician held its June picnic, an event Pete liked for its ruthless, middle-aged softball and numberless margaritas. At least one person usually brought a dog, and Pete liked that, too. He and his wife, Katherine, lived in an apartment that prohibited pets, so he looked forward to taking a drag off somebody else’s dog. Katharine’s phrase. No animal lover, Katherine let Pete go to the picnic by himself.
Sometimes, when I’m truly amazed by a story that encompasses a pet theme of mine in a crazily effective and innovative way, I’ll say: “This was a story I wish I’d written.” Like Alathea Black’s “You, On A Good Day” or “Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre” by Seth Fried; that happens fairly often with One Story. And at the other end of the spectrum are the stories, like this one, that read like something I might have written: there’s some possibility there, but it just doesn’t work. I don’t run into many of those in One Story, and when I do, I’m perplexed. What did I miss? Add to that a second story, upcoming later this week, that I didn’t get at all, and I’m worried: am I in some kind of phase?
This story is the examination of a marriage. We have X-ray tech Pete and his wife Katherine, now two uneasy years into the reconciliation from their earlier separation. And out-of-towner Marnie, visiting her cousin. She and Pete have a moment at the Imaging Center picnic, and she decides to stay, to apply for work as a radiologic technician at the same imaging center where her cousin and Pete already work, just in time for Katherine’s annual mammogram at that same imaging center to reveal, on second look, cancer.
Wow. Some reality-tv producer at Bravo is saying: “We need to send a crew to that imaging center!”
It’s all just a little too convenient. There’s nothing wrong with any one of these coincidences (the out-of-town cousin who’s also a rad tech, the attraction, the sudden decision to move, the wife’s diagnosis) but all of them together begins to feel a little put-on. Yes, there’s some symmetry there: the second try at the marriage reveals maybe the reconciliation wasn’t a good idea, just as the second look at the mammogram reveals cancer. Maybe a little too symmetrical?
Then we have the characters, each of whom has at least one characteristic I should appreciate, but none of whom hold any interest for me. Pete is in the throes of a middle-aged crush. This should be an excellent connecting point with this character for me. In her One Story Q&A, McGraw cites the middle-aged crush – how humiliating and destructive they are, as opposed to the teenage kind (“he or she has to be aware of how stupid this whole thing looks….If you’re 15 and you get a crush, about the worst thing that can happen is that you’ll listen to a lot of emo music. If you’re 45, you can wreck some lives”) as the genesis of the story. Great idea: I’ve suffered through such a thing myself, though, thankfully, without the life-wrecking part.
He knew what came next. The sleepless nights, the restlessness that would compel him, at two in the morning, to review old magazines for articles on the importance of smell in physical attraction. If he rode out this night’s insanity, and the next, and the one after that, he could eventually return to his friendly, rubbery life with his mostly pleasant wife.
I was all primed to feel sympathetic to this guy, though I didn’t really have much to go on beyond that paragraph. Then when Pete ends up in a car making out with Marnie the day they meet, without informing her that he’s married, I pretty much cut bait on him. And that’s Page 3. And it’s not that he’s unlikeable; it’s perfectly fair to expect a reader to be interested in a complex flawed character, to believe in the possibility of his redemption or appreciate the genesis of his unlikeablility or even the intricacy of his deviousness. But Pete isn’t even unlikeable enough to be interesting.
Katherine, his wife, should also be sympathetic, seeing as she’s got breast cancer and her husband’s almost-cheating on her. But she’s painted as such a sour, hostile person, it’s hard to see anything to cheer for in her, either.
Katherine lived inside of lifelong, ironclad disappointment – no pleasure was ever grand enough, no stroke of good luck lucky enough. When they were young, he had admired her standards, but now he was just tired.
Marnie isn’t a bimbo by any means, though I wondered mildly what out-of-towner jumps into a clinch at a company picnic with someone she’s just met, having exchanged little but what would pass for witty repartee on any of the current crop of sitcoms. I figured I was just naïve, but then the next day she announces plans to move to town, which seems some combination of presumptuous and foolhardy. Not to mention, in writing parlance, unearned.
At this point – the coincidences, the characters – I think the story lost me, so anything else is probably just an overlay of dissatisfaction. Like the imagery and metaphors. The Imaging Center – x-rays, MRIs, CTs, etc. – generates all manner of moments involving looking, seeing, not seeing, looking again, not wanting to look, dissecting, looking inside, etc, like the symmetry I’ve already noted. There’s also a bit about whether or not of broken vases and cups can be glued back together. This is the sort of thing I usually love, but it seemed heavy-handed and simplistic. That isn’t to say there aren’t some good moments. The broken-vase story Katherine tells has real possibilities, particularly when we find out she’s made it up to squelch someone’s congratulations on their reconciliation. But it’s all alone there, a grain in a wilderness of chaff (see, I know a thing or two about heavy-handed metaphors).
Then there’s the writing itself, which may have a cadence and style I’m simply not picking up on, but just seemed unusually – how should I put this – bad. Unpolished. For example, this scene which takes place early on, the day after the picnic but before cancer becomes an issue:
“How was your day? Anything interesting happen?” he said from the doorway, juggling his car keys.
“Aside from the big vulture that swooped down and plucked Jon away? Nothing much.” Jon was Katherine’s boss at the small fabric store where she worked part-time. Once, when Katherine was lugging a sewing machine from the back of the store for a customer, Jon said that he was the brains behind the brawn. Katherine set down the machine and invited Jon to show them how to thread it, which he did not know how to do. “Brains,” Katherine said to the customer, who laughed and bought enough fabric for an extra jumper. Pete had liked the story when Katherine first told it, but now he imagined how Marnie would have handled things. By the time she was finished, not only would the customer stay, but she would bring friends and Jon would give Marnie a raise.
To me, there’s an awkwardness on a macro- (late introduction of Jon, clumsy transition to a remembrance, and a good one, that doesn’t seem to fit the context of the casual greeting) and micro- (so many clauses, haphazardly strung together as though once written they can’t be changed; events jumping through time on the backs of auxiliary verbs) level. And again with the heavy-handed imagery of the man-eating vulture.
I’m kind of surprised here. Erin McGraw is neither a neophyte (she’s got four well-received books and a smattering of stories in high-end places) nor famous enough for her work to be accepted for the name alone. But is this really a good story? Maybe she’s just not the writer for me. Maybe I’m in a bad mood. Maybe I need to re-read the story in six months or a year and see what I think then.