Pushcart XLII: Bret Anthony Johnston, “Dixon” from VQR, Summer 2016

A star-smeared night, the usual briny and humid haze of the brush country in August, and Dixon was hauling twenty cases of stolen toys up from the Rio Grande valley. They were in the bed of his truck under a blue tarp. He took care to drive the speed limit and flash his blinker. If the border patrol at the Sarita checkpoint asked, he’d claim a delivery mix-up. If the guards were white, he’d blame it on Mexicans.
The toys had been slated for Dairy Queen kids’ meals, a promotion for a book series called Pegaterrestrials in which the characters were half alien and half winged horse, but that morning the office phone rang and a collectibles dealer had offered three grand for the lot. Dixon was forty-two and he’d managed the franchise outside Harlingen for four years. He knew he’d be fired, maybe arrested, too, but he also knew better than to give himself time to reconsider….

Complete story available online at VQR

Dixon isn’t a bad guy, not at all. He’s a father who’d turn himself into a Pegaterrestrial to save his daughter. His intentions are great; he just falls a little short in the execution. If wishes were horses, beggars would ride – or, as in this case, fly. And he’d get his fifteen-year-old into the drug rehab program she needs.

It’s a story that walks an interesting line between comedy and tragedy. An out-of-control teenager, a family on the brink of financial and legal disaster, against a guy named Cornbread who runs an outfit selling bootleg fast-food toys at flea markets. A wife and mother who focuses on what she can do for her husband and daughter: making “real food”, tuna fish, for dinner, instead of the ubiquitous free Blizzards that flow through the house like water. A guy in a humid, miserable landscape, who sees nothing but the light at the end of the tunnel, and is constitutionally unable to consider that it might be an oncoming train.

I’ve read somewhere that the motivation of all fiction is to show change, or the impossibility of change. Given the final lines, this story’s job is the latter. Somehow, that makes it sadder, funnier, and much more real.

But I think something else this story does is more important. If I read one summary of Dixon – he’s a Texan ready to blame everything on Mexicans; he’s a thief, and a toy thief at that; he gave his daughter a shotgun for her 12th birthday – I’d put him in a category, and not a nice category. This story takes him out of a category and turns him into a person. I can feel great compassion for him, maybe laugh at him a little, definitely frown on some of his decisions, but really feel for his dilemma, one many parents face: how do you save a child gone wrong? His views on Mexicans, on guns, on pretty much anything else, fade beside that. Seeing him as a person, even a flawed person, closes the gap between us, make it possible for us to connect, at least a little.

This is what fiction can do for all of us: remind us that the people we put in categories, the people we yell at on Twitter, are people, with fears, dreams, and foibles. They could be people we might like, if we met them in stories. And maybe the next time I hear of someone who gave a rifle to his 12 year old, instead of putting him in a category, I’ll remember Dixon, and see a person.

BASS 2013: Bret Anthony Johnston, “Encounters with Unexpected Animals” from Esquire, March 2012

Esquire art by Bill Henson

Esquire art by Bill Henson

At supper, Robbie and the girl had told, in tandem, a story about playing hide-and-seek on the abandoned country club golf course. Hide-and-seek, Lambright thought, is that what y’all call it now? Then they started talking about wildlife. The girl had once seen a blue-and-gold macaw riding on the headrest of a man’s passenger seat, and another time, in a pasture in the Rio Grande Valley, she’d spotted zebras grazing among cattle. Robbie’s mother recalled finding goats in the tops of peach trees in her youth. Robbie told the story of visiting the strange neighborhood in San Antonio where the muster of peacocks lived, and it led the girl to confess her desire to get a fan of peacock feathers tattooed on her lower back. She also wanted a tattoo of a busted magnifying glass hovering over the words FIX ME.

We don’t expect to encounter macaws on the highway, or zebras in a herd of cattle; we don’t expect goats in peach trees, or peacocks in San Antonio. We don’t expect a boy with superhero posters on his walls to turn into a man over the wrong kind of girl; we don’t expect the wrong kind of girl to turn into a clever monster. And we certainly don’t expect to turn into an animal ourselves, or to discover that we had that in us, all along.

“The girl” in this very short story (1300 words, available online) is named Lisa, and Lambright knows it perfectly well – he uses her name when addressing her directly in dialogue – but she’s narrated as “the girl” throughout. Of course she is. Lambright is the point-of-view-character, and he doesn’t think of her as a person with a name; he knows exactly what she is: “She’d been held back in school. Her driver’s license was currently suspended. She had a reputation, a body, and a bar code tattooed on the back of her neck.” She’s bad news. Eve in Eden, bearing an apple with his son’s name on it. He’d been worried about son Robbie seeming a little, well, behind, in psychosocial development, with those superhero posters on his walls, and the airplane models hanging from the ceiling. Then the girl came into Robbie’s life, those childish things were put away, and Lambright’s really got something to worry about: petty thefts when she’s around, the flask of booze in the back yard.

As a reader, I had a hard time disliking this girl – how can you dislike someone with her taste in tattoos? – and I think that’s a credit to Johnston’s skill. But, and this is also a credit to Johnston, I sympathize with the father’s protective instincts, which have been inflamed for good reason. Or at least, I did sympathize, until he took a detour while driving he home from a pleasant dinner with his family. I wasn’t sure who to cheer for when things the tables were turned on him.

Blood was surging in his veins, like he’d swerved to miss something in the road and his truck had just skidded to a stop and he didn’t yet know if he was hurt, if the world was changed. The passenger door was open, the interior light burning, pooling. The girl jumped across the creek and bolted alongside it. She cut to and fro. He wanted to see her as an animal he’d managed to avoid, a rare and dangerous creature he’d describe for Robbie when he got home, but really her movement reminded him of a trickle of water tracking through pebbles.

The language does a great job of reinforcing mood and plot. They’re “outside city limits.” They certainly are. “He killed the engine.” Not, he turned off the engine, or cut the ignition. I had no idea what was going to happen, but I knew it wasn’t going to be good. Turns out, I had no idea just how bad it would be. Physical violence is not the only way to damage someone; sometimes just holding up a mirror will do it: “… and the scrub around them silvered…”

Just as I was putting my notes together for this post, Prof. Charles May discussed this story, and other BASS 2013 selections, on his blog, “Reading the Short Story”. He phrases it far more artfully than I could, pinpoints it down to motivations, motivations of which we sometimes are unaware.

I’m not sure Lambright’s motivation was that much a secret to himself. I think he knew exactly what he was doing; his mistake was in underestimating the girl, who also knew exactly what he was doing. Intimidation only works when the intimidatee doesn’t point out you’re being a jerk, and a borderline criminal jerk at that (I’m not sure what the crime would be, but some form of abduction, threatening, or endangering the welfare of a minor would be a good place to start). And when you’re dealing with an animal, who’s intimidating whom can change pretty quickly.

A seriously good story.

BASS 2011: Bret Anthony Johnston, “Soldier of Fortune” from Glimmer Train

It was the year the president denied trading arms for hostages in Iran and the space shuttle Challenger exploded and Halley’s Comet scorched through the sky. It was the year I loved a reckless girl, the year being around my best friend made me lonely.

This is a very sweet and well-told coming-of-age tale that Johnston admits he hardly remembers writing. While it is extremely well-paced and well-written – the paragraphs and sections end with perfect cadences – it’s also quite predictable, and I have a feeling I’ll hardly remember reading it a year from now.

Josh is fourteen and a freshman; Holly, his neighbor and crush, is eighteen and a senior. She’s lived across the street for all his life, except for those two years when her family went to Florida, but they’ve been back a year now. Her little brother Sam, three years old and born when they were away, has a tragic kitchen accident and is severely scalded; Josh is enlisted to feed the dog while her family is occupied. He spends a lot of time in Holly’s bedroom, making aborted phone calls from her phone, and admiring a picture of her and Sam in an orange grove. He and his best friend Matt have been collecting war trinkets – ninja stars, blank bullets, MREs – for years, but Josh has lost interest lately and has packed up the stuff for Matt to pick up.

Josh does a lot of growing up in those few days, aided by Holly’s surreptitious return from the hospital. He learns about secrets. He learns the oranges in the picture were frozen. He learns what you’d expect him to learn in a sweet, well-told coming-of-age tale.

It’s told in that “memoir voice,” an adult looking back. In this case, he’s looking back from twenty years hence: “Now I think of 1986 as the year my life pivoted away from what it had been, maybe the year when all of our lives pivoted.” Holly joined the Coast Guard (and later the Army) right as Josh lost interest in military matters, and made quite a career for herself over twenty years. His mother emailed him the obituary. He wonders if he can find the picture he stole, of Holly and Sam in the orange grove.

Oddly, we never find out whether or not Sam survived his accident. A lot of interesting family dynamics are hinted at, but not directly exposed. We find out a lot about rumors, and about how slippery truth can be.

I wish I could work up more enthusiasm for the story, because it truly is exquisitely crafted. But I can’t, because it was so familiar. There was nothing in it that surprised or excited or even interested me, other than the skill level. Except maybe the oranges. But from a “best” story, I expect more. Still, if you’re fond of the Bildungsroman genre, this is a great example.

ETA: Oops, my bad – this story is in the Pushcart XXXVI (2012) volume. I’m a little surprised, but I guess I need to read it again and figure out what I missed (hints from readers are welcome). And, oddly, this makes two “scalding” stories in XXXVI.