Harnessing Darkness

by Jodi Paloni

Other Heartbreaks
Patricia Henley
Engine Books
2011

 

The stories in Other Heartbreaks by Patricia Henley will change you. Now the thin girl who passes you coming out of a gas station restroom—you’ll notice the gray smudges under her eyes. Your own secrets—the ones folded twice or three times inside you that crop up when you’re rinsing dish soap from your favorite tiny plate with the chipped edge, the plate you bought the day your divorce was final and that you’ve packed and carried from place to place—now you’ll notice sadness. You’ll feel a round in the dark to reach your bed at night rather than flick on the overhead light. You’ll want to say only the things that are the most honest to yourself and your daughters.

In “Rocky Gap,” June Peck tells the story of “the crazy family”—hers. She talks of fondness and missed opportunities, of everybody doing the best they can, considering, “They survived their parent’s excess, their imprudence, their disorganization, their inability to harness their darkest energy.” June pitches her tent at a campground where siblings and in-laws and nieces and nephews gather for a reunion/memorial service for the “phantom sib.” You will wish June lived down the road so she could stop by the mailbox to tell you a story. “Tanya’ s family is tidy and small. She has one sister: an attorney specializing in outer space law who still lives at home…They wouldn’t fart in a bathtub.” And, “Talking to a drunk about drinking is like talking to a stranger about slapping her children at the mall.” These gritty details leave an impression, like sleeping on gravel at a campsite.

Besides what they notice, Henley’s characters do strange things. In “Red Lily” they “daydream about the confessional,” sabotage other people’s jobs, and leave the Christmas tree lit all year round. They do normal things, too, like want “someone impossible.”

In “Sun Damage,” the characters find out that the things they thought were normal are strange.

Everyone had rules and Meg Ransom learned them quickly, rather than risk getting a slap or a switch. When she’d grown up and left the house on Bicycle Bridge Road, Meg thought her mother’s rules quite odd. But you don’t know that when you’re young; you imagine everyone lives as you do. Finding out they don’t is one of the best or worst discoveries of childhood. Hannah Ransom did not allow Meg to stare out the windows during lightning storms. She did not allow her to walk near people operating gasoline or electric lawn mowers. She did not allow her to watch television. And, she did not allow her to cross the railroad tracks into the lanes of Webber, a batch of leaning shotgun houses encircled by a muddy creek, the railroad tracks, and a sea of soy beans.

In some cases, hardship transpires before the story starts and leaves characters to grapple with the repercussions. Husbands walk out, men touch girls, and fathers “sit down on the limestone steps and die.” Whoever’s left behind, mainly wives and daughters, face the rest of their lives, lining up the broken pieces, memories like snapshots–this happened, and then this–trying to make sense. Sometimes what happened is only hinted at, leaving the reader to connect the dots. Other times, like in “Kaput,” you find out in the last line what the story is really about and that makes you want to read it again.

While the first six stories are linked by theme—women responding to loss through amalgamated reminiscences—a second section of the book entitled “Other Heartbreaks” is comprised of three stories linked by character and place, a family named March in Chicago. Each story tells a piece of family history from the point of view of one of the three family members. While the March stories are sectioned off from the others with their own title page, they share the main thrust of the other stories. Characters glean from their pasts to help sort out challenges they face in the present.

In all of the stories, one or more of the characters, unlike June Peck’s parents, harness the darkness, but not for the purpose of keeping it from running wild. Instead they rein it in to hold it close, to abide in the gloom and the comfort of its familiarity.

 

Jodi Paloni earned an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is currently working on a linked story collection in her tiny writing house in the woods.