I have been looking into schedules. Even when we read physics, we inquire of each least particle, What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.

On the first of each month,
a guest writer
how he or she spends the day.

July 1, 2018: Becky Mandelbaum

I keep saying I prefer novels, that I don’t love short stories, but I keep reading collections and loving them. Bad Kansas is the latest. It won the 2016 Flannery O’Connor Award and was published last fall by the University of Georgia Press. Eleven stories, and what, I wondered, made me love them so.

Was it the truth in the humor in “Kansas Boys”?

But his father was a private man and could hardly say “bless you” without straining an emotional muscle.

The solidity of the words?

He licked his lips, as if tasting the decision.

She had tragedy coming out her eardrums.

The longing in the simplest of sentences?

Still, she missed her Kansas boys.

In “The Golden State,” it’s Alec and the girl he took out of Kansas. And as he said,

The job didn’t pay well, but it was–back to his main point–very much not in Kansas.

Slowly, as Kansas emerges as a player, I began to look for sightings, for the relationship each character had to this midwestern state I’ve never been to.

Land, I now saw, was like pie. Who would settle just for the middle when the crust was the whole point? I felt bad for Kansas, that everything in it was the same: land, land, land.

It was the way I could find little bits of me in these stories of the heartland.

“I don’t want to go see snow like it’s some relic in a museum. I want it to actually snow. I want it to rain. I want the sky to do something, anything at all.”

It was Laney in “A Million and One Marthas.”

My mother’s house–my house–was like a waiting room. Beige curtains. Beige couch. A glass bowl of chewable minds to keep you occupied until the gynecologist was ready to see you.

I wondered if he was going to try to have sex with me and, if he did, whether I would try to stop him.

And Madeline, the girlfriend in “Go On, Eat Your Heart Out.”

“What’s keeping you here? Everyone leaves Kansas, eventually.”

In “Night of Indulgences,” it’s the non-prostitute prostitutes, the dress flying out the hotel room window, and the perfect ending.

Just a paragraph into “Stupid Girls,” I thought, I know why I like this one–for its beginning–the details and the feeling seeping up from the words.

Point to any Saturday of my youth and there I’ll be, with Ruby, drawn to her company out of equal parts love and boredom. This day was no exception. We were in Ruby’s bedroom, which had, long ago, been her mother’s. By now, it was Ruby’s enough–jars of colorful sand, geode collection, a stack of National Geographic magazines–but there were certain fossils she refused to excavate: the Hershey’s Kisses tin in which her mother had kept her earrings, the faded Beatles poster on the closet door. I’d never tell her, but I loved this room. You could feel the love seeping up from the carpet, condensing on the walls.

But not so fast, there was more. There were the nouns.

Sometimes I thought of Nana Faye as a lighthouse, my mother as a boat with a hole in the bottom. And what was Ruby? Sometimes the lightbulb. Sometimes the darkness.

And in the “Queen of England,” the images.

Despite Dewy’s efforts, our mother eventually attached herself to one of these men, and it was like watching a swan eat a cigarette butt. I’d seen this once, during a field trip to the botanical gardens, when Miss Robertson flicked her cigarette into the bird pond.

And always Kansas.

It was the dead center of July and the Kansas sun was poised like the face of a hammer ready to strike. “Bald Bear.”

In “The House on Alabama Street,” this tale of ‘love undone by location,’ (and not the only such tale in this collection) Kansas is no longer hiding along the edges. Heidi asks Cliff point blank,

“What brought you to Kansas? School?”
“A girl, actually,” he said. It seemed, now, like a stupid reason.
“It’s either school, a job, or a girl,” she said. “Or death. Those are the only reasons for coming to Kansas. Unless you’re born here, of course. Then it’s a matter of escaping. She smiled, letting Cliff know this was a joke.
Cliff wanted to disagree, to find some more romantic view of the plains, but the truth was that he knew nothing about the area except that you couldn’t buy liquor at the grocery store and that the governor was something of a madman. “It’s not a bad place,” he said. “The people seem nice.” He hoped this would make the woman like him. He often worried that women did not like him.

Becky is a Kansas native now living in Washington. Read Bad Kansas if you haven’t already, and then, like me, you’ll be looking forward to her novel, which will be out next year.

Come back on JULY 1st to read how BECKY MANDELBAUM spends her days.