There’s an old man who starts at the tip of my childhood neighborhood and makes his way somewhere downtown by the time I would make it to work at the literary magazine. The poets would have the back window corked open, those old windows that open like you imagine Doris Day would open her windows and start singing, like doors, but smaller and clear. I’ve tried to write poems about him. He can ride one-handed with a full jug of 2% milk in the other hand. I know it’s 2% because of the color of the cap, that’s how close I look to his wheel spokes serving the sidewalk. He wears a silver helmet. I would imagine him shining it with the smooth rag the Eye Care Center gives you, but I’ve never seen him do anything but pump his legs on that bike. He rides over four bridges if he takes the same way I used to, but I’m in a car and in Raleigh it doesn’t usually rain, but sometimes it would and his helmet would swoosh by while the cigarette smoke seeped out the open country windows of the apartment.
The apartment we worked in was vintage. All wood floors, some man who could have been a lawyer or psychiatrist lived across the hall. He came out to check his mail. To get to the apartment was straight stairs, awkward height so that you had to remember to step less than the normal size. The lights flickered. That’s okay though because there was so much natural light it was sickening. The poets who worked there had to secretly smoke because the owner was always stopping in at the town pharmacy. This was her fourth rental space. She owned my favorite dessert place too, “the purple house,” where they sold baklava the size of a pizza slice for only $4 dollars. I think it shut down because no one knew it existed.
This story is becoming too long and too not about the topic.
This man on the bike has always fascinated me. I google him sometimes thinking that a “Yahoo Answer” will come up about him. Other people must see him in his metallic helmet riding along the 540 bypass and wonder at which gas station he chose to buy milk. Does he come from the church on the corner, the woods, the softball fields behind the new developments. I’ve never seen him start or end. At times, I’m not sure he does.
This is the same story, better words, and a more interesting main character than myself, in April Wilder’s novella “You’re that Guy” within her short story collection This Is Not An Accident. I’m not sure how to review this collection because one of these stories is a dead ringer for my Aunt Janice’s life and Wilder’s bohemian look and baby momma inheritance leaves me wondering how she could know me so well in just 207 pages. This book just came out four days ago, but the people who got a pre-review on Goodreads claim that they couldn’t even finish the first story because of so much “dark humor.” And like people would do, they repeated themselves, playing that same record of not loving this book because of this so-called “dark humor.” I have a feeling these people don’t live in reality and are instead just surfacing at pretend in their lives.
The problem with these reviews is that this isn’t dark humor. These are people living in a reality. They could be your neighbors. In the opening story, “This Is Not An Accident,” a woman drives back and forth through different states because a man has stood her up at a bar after she’s driven three hours to see him. She swears she may have hit someone along the way after hearing so much drama out of the driving school she’s attending because she can’t stop driving back and forth and thus getting too many speeding tickets. That may seem strange to some people, but I think I know two or three people that would do that, without having a midlife crisis in the middle of it. Maybe I just associate myself with the strangest of people, who wouldn’t actually do something shocking, but they will do something odd.
In “It’s a Long Dang Life,” a grandmother has found her lost love. At some close-to-teenage point in her life, her mother told her that her boyfriend had died at war from a land mine. She marries a man who beats her and then sees the former flame in a bar just after the adolescence of her marriage. She doesn’t do anything risky. She just waits. Her high school love, Odd (fancy meeting him here), calls seventeen years after the bar incident and they progress to continue their relationship even though he’s a slumped alcoholic. If you’ve never known a grandfather to marry some young woman after a few months of loneliness then you might think this is “dark humor,” but to me this is just what people do in order to survive. They make lives that are comic book not fairytale. They accept things because they’re tired of not accepting things and finding it no better. I’m not saying run out and get yourself a high school sweetheart with alcoholic tendencies, but I’m saying this isn’t a far cry from what I think normal people do with their spare bedroom, and broken hearts.
I think my favorite story in the collection is “Me Me Me” about a woman who’s messy sister is adopting an even messier child from foster care. The sister’s name is Fawn if that’s any indication of her personality. The non-baby-deer sister has to decide whether to give her sister a recommendation for the adoption or to keep both the sister and child from being hurt by their mix of behaviors. To be honest, the whole time, I thought Goldie Hawn played the sister because the description was a dead ringer and the name rhymed. My brain works in mysterious ways. I’ll let you just find out what the non-freckled-deer sister decides in the end, but it’s a twisted tale of what families will do for one another. I think all of these stories are a bit like that. They might leave a bad taste in your mouth, but who doesn’t have some sort of “Odd” in their family.
Don’t we use our families sometimes to explain why we’re neurotic, or in some ways unhealthy, or too clean, or obsessively organized, or why we leave cereal boxes and Reynolds Wrap on top of the fridge and not hidden from house party guests. This is how we use our families, as small tokens of the kindnesses life has brought us (yes, hopefully), but also as the reason we’re messed up, or wired funny, or we just chose to take French in high school instead of Spanish because our father was pushing so hard for Spanish and this was the one way we could show him that he won’t always be the boss. Yea, that’s what I did. I can read the back of a shampoo bottle, BAM.
I use my family to explain why I’m kind (my mother) or I’m driven (my father), but I also use my family to explain why I’m bossy (my father) or I have a slight obsession with my grandmothers (my mother).
The best part of this story collection is that in “This Is Not An Accident” Wilder describes the feeling of an accident perfectly. I knew as soon as I read it that I always wanted to describe it, but didn’t know how and that this is how you do it. She also has some brilliant quotes:
“She smiled at the old-timey word, figure, and tried to determine whether he meant her figure needed flattering, or deserved it” (109).
“Maybe Bob was the last man I believed, and the sooner that man comes along in life, the sooner you can relax and quit worrying whether you’re okay” (44).
“He said he didn’t see why there had to be a story. He said, ‘No one seems to want to believe there’s just a guy who’s so lonely he carries a doll around — apparently everyone feels better thinking this shitty thing happened that explains it.’ He rolled his head back. ‘The fire, the shrink, the baby — it’s a Ron Howard film. One thing people don’t seem to be able to take is public loneliness. Anything but that” (190).
Maybe that’s my problem with the shining helmet, out in the sun whether it’s winter and his coat is both zipped and buttoned or it’s summer and he wears the same coat sans tight fastenings. Maybe I’m just the one who’s usually too scared to eat alone in public and he can just ride 60 miles back and forth everyday, letting the trees reflect in the gleam.
Someone give this man a job running tours around Raleigh, please. He’s like a city monument to the people of Raleigh.