Pushcart XL: George Singleton, “Four-Way Stop” from Georgia Review, Summer 2014

Nikolai Ge: "Christ and the Thief" (1893)

Nikolai Ge: “Christ and the Thief” (1893)

G. R. prided himself on both historical and traditional figures. He felt as if he knew quite a bit about pop culture, too, at least in movies and music. This was Halloween at his and Tina’s front door, out from normal suburban neighborhoods. He’d already pointed at masks and said that man, iron Man, Superman, Spiderman,… He’d correctly identified Reagan, Bush, Napoleon, and Rush Limbaugh. Ballerina, pro wrestlers…. G. R. waved at parents waiting on the roadside in cars, gave a thumbs up, said how he liked the way their little Lady Gaga’s looked, their Mileys, their MacBook Airs and cans of Red Bull. “God damn how many miniature Snickers we got left? We got any of those Reese’s cups?” G. R. said to his wife. “I don’t remember Halloween being like this the last few years. The churches must quit having parties. I thought parents got scared off by razor blades and white powder.”

I often sense stories as physical shapes: lines, spirals, arcs, triangles pointing either up or down. This story read very much like an onion, if you can think of an onion as something to read: lots of layers, and every layer gets teased away to reveal another one. I think it’s the first time I’ve had clear three-dimensional impression of a story. It’s not that other stories don’t reveal more as they go, but here, the layers just peel off, and nothing is what it was a sentence or two ago.

You gotta love a guy who wishes for the old days of “razor blades and white powder” scaring off trick-or-treaters; and you’ve gotta love his wife, who wanted him to wear “a bloody bandage on your head like some kind of Civil War amputee” for the same purpose. But there’s more to these people than we see at first glance.

Every year there’s a tsk-tsk feature about parents who dress their kids as Madonna (last year it was “Pretty Woman” before the rich john, because who wouldn’t want to be the after-Gere version). Has Halloween changed, or has it always been like this? I thought it went gay back in the 70s, but it seems more mainstream than ever. It’s sort of a trial run for Christmas: home decorating, food, parties.

I, however, seem to be missing the Halloween gene. I only recall two costumes, a bumblebee an an angel (and the bumblebee I only remember because I had a photo until fairly recently when I had the sense to throw it away). I haven’t had a trick-or-treater at my door in decades (though that doesn’t stop me from buying a bag of candy, “just in case”).

Singleton brings on some goofy humor with his trick-or-treat:

G. R.… looked out the door and said, “Jesus! Jesus! Two Jesuses! Are y’all with each other?” Two young men limped up the walkway, both burdened with crosses fashioned from four-by-four lengths of pressure-treated pine normally used for flower-bed edging.
G. R. Yelled out, “Jesus and Jesus! Y’all are the first biblical characters we’ve had tonight. Good job boys!” He focused on the teenagers, but handed over a couple small Butterfingers and Milky Ways to a young hobo and Snow White who elbowed in. They didn’t say “Trick-Or-Treat” or “Thank you,” but he didn’t mind. To the two Jesuses, he said, “Man, that has to be tough,” for they had to hold their arms out to the side, with plastic orange pumpkins strapped to their wrists, which were strapped to the wood. “We’re not Jesus,” the kid on the left said. “I’m Impenitent Thief.”
“Penitent thief. Sorry,” said the other kid.

Singleton has a rep as a Southern writer with a sense of humor. From a brief tour of his works, I see a lot of common elements: religion, a kind of gritty charm to the characters, and even four-way stop signs. I don’t think of those as native to the South (I encounter several in my daily travels), but for what ever reason, they seem to show up in his stories. Maybe it’s not because they’re a regional tic, but rather an interesting symbol. Four-way stops make no sense and create a mess, yet lots of cities (like Des Moines, Iowa, for example seem to have requests from citizens for such signage, and have to explain it isn’t always a good idea. It seems civil engineering has worked out conditions when a four-way stop would be helpful, and the only one I agree with is: to serve as a stop-gap until a traffic signal can be installed. But I’m not a civil engineer.

I haven’t said much about the story because to read it is to discover it yourself. Some stories are like that. Every “oh, so he isn’t…” or “Ah, now I see what that’s about…” is like a crochet stitch in an elaborate afghan, working together to create the whole. The arrangement of the layers, and the way in which each one is peeled back, is the art. It’s quite short – about seven pages – but I went through at least three sharp turns.

There’s a thread of theology running through the layers. It starts with the Biblical trick-or-treaters and develops with the so-called Halloween Miracle. I can’t quite parse it, but I’m going to work on that, because I’m intrigued from the start by the confusion between penitence and impenitence. The penitent thief, unnamed in the four canonical Gospels, has many names in other sources. The most common is St. Dismas, which is unrelated to “dismal” (from the Latin, “bad days”) but rather comes from the Greek word for sunset (δύση ήλιου, literally, “west sunlight”), often used as a metaphor for death. Which again shows that, just because a story begins with some goofy riff on Halloween, and just because a character seems to be something of a tightwad ass, if you look more closely, you’ll find first impressions don’t always mean much.

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