HauteLit from HotLanta: “Things We Learn We Can Do”

In 2013, OriginalTitle will be presenting her interpretations of contemporary short stories in whatever way such interpretations happen to emerge as a result of the inspiration.  

This week’s featured short story is “Trouble and the Shadowy Deathblow,” by Patrick Somerville and can be read here at Electric Literature.

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Her body always did have the strangest intuitions.  The corporeal entity had divorced from her mind on grounds of long-term psychological and physical abuse long before today.  For some time now  it has neglected to ask permission from her mind.  The rapidity of the coffee’s percolations paired with the angle of the sun and the three-fourth’s worth of inkflow left in her journal-writing pen would somehow inform the molecules within her and before she could think about it, her hand had ignited the engine with a quick turn and the right foot had pressed the pedal just gently enough to reverse the car out of her parking space and into another in front of the market and there she would buy a sackful of kiwis.  In her car, before going any further, she would devour them all silently as if that were the only thing she needed to do that day.  Relishing each seedy bile-green bite.  She hates kiwis.  The body has gone rogue.

Long episodes tweezing and frowning and pinching and frowning in front of the mirror combined with thighs that chafed uncomfortably in the warmer months, a string of rejections and a persistent need to please others had likely been cause.  The body planned it’s resistance to the virus that was her mind in increments.  At  first, she would simply notice her foot swinging like a pendulum forward and back underneath the table, moving ever so close and closer to her mother’s shin as her rouged lips moved up and down, subtly hinting at the five pounds gained in the month of January, the lack of boyfriend and financial instability until it struck the fleshy calf encased within overly tan pantyhose one size too small opposite her at the Bellevue Country Club.  All the while, her mind on repeat, “She couldn’t possibly be this mean,  she couldn’t possibly be this mean, don’t stoop to her level, don’t…”  But after the toe of her pump hit that shin bone, she realized she no longer had control.  Her lips issued a curt, “Oops, sorry mom,” and then curled into wry smile her mind couldn’t prevent.  Her mother gripped her shin shouting, “Damnit Jane!  You ripped my hose.”  Jane had tried to stop it.  Her mind felt guilty, but what could she do?

Exactly thirteen times, Jane has applied to the Small Size, Big Ideas Children’s Book Showcase.  It is a showcase designed specifically for children’s books under the size of 6×6 inches.  Jane specializes in 3x3s.  The showcase has rejected her application twelve times.  Each time the letter was a variation of the previous, stating that they appreciate the amount of effort and work she has put in, but the size of her book did not fit into this year’s showcase- try again next year.  The committee chair, Mr. McDuble, always a choose a size to showcase after receiving the entries and deciding which size has the best “crop” to showcase.  The first showcase had been 1x1s as an exotic and forceful, “See what we can do?!” to the rest of the Children’s Book industry.  That year Jane had done a 3×3.  She went anyway and scoffed at the barely readable books.  Pure hype.  The next year she did a 2×2 (even though it was not her preferred medium) assuming Mr. McDuble would simply go up in size each year.  He chose 3×2.  In twelve years she had managed to do the wrong size every year.

After the shin-incident and other “accidents,” things changed.  This year Jane’s entry is sure to cause a splash.  Her mind has no idea what has been mailed off.  You see, every morning, Jane awakens to find her X-Acto knife, uncapped, clutched in her calloused fingers.  Each time, the blade was left marred by ink or glue or cardboard fibers as if she had been on a murderous rampage through her art supplies.  The book could never be found.  She presumed her hands hid it in the darkness before she slept-walked to her bed each night.  Of course she’s tried to contain her body.  She knows it could do harm.  Padlocks, chains, heavy furniture and the like have been employed before bedtime to prevent these nightly workabouts, but muscle memory wins every time and that damn brainless body finds it’s way out easily.

Eventually she awoke to her knife covered in stamp remnants.  The book had been sent out.

She received her rejection letter this morning.  With it came her returned book, a masterpiece marvel, cut around the edges like a deranged puzzle so that it could encompass as many different size constraints as possible.  She had to give her mindless body credit, it was a smart idea and the book wasn’t half-bad either.  She read this year’s size and began measuring around the book hoping to see once and for all if it were the size or simply her content preventing her entry to the showcase.  After several coordinated movements with the tape measure, she knew, once and for all.

Her body takes her to several strange places.  First, the hardware store: rope, tarp.  Then, the bank: savings withdrawal.  Finally, the drugstore: hair-dye, hat.

She wakes hours after midnight in a motel.  On her pillow, as usual, she finds her hand tightly grasping a knife.  This time, though, covered in blood.  She peers over the edge of the mattress.   McDuble’s body lies next to the bed in pieces of all sizes under 6×6.

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Initially, the reader is drawn into, “Trouble and the Shadowy Deathblow,” by fascinatingly exotic profession of Jim Funkle: “pressurized and spray on cheeses.”  It isn’t often one reads a story about such little-known scientific branches.  What does a spray on cheese scientist do?  Who is this spray on cheese man?  The reader hungers for knowledge and soon realizes that this short is so much more, so, so much more than the intricate world of, “possible manipulations of ewe milk.”

Somerville expertly wields his sentences.  Pairing words together in new ways and infusing voice with each punctuation mark, he takes the reader into the mind of a “cheese-man dad” murderer.  Funkle, an aging forty-something with newly formed jowls and an overbearing wife has recently become the pariah of the industry after a failed pre-cooked cheese hotdog situation.  He begins to make decisions rashly, ones he would not make under normal circumstances, saying, “If you saw Gina operating the vacuum cleaner when she wants you to do something, you would understand.”  He leaves for an industry conference worried about his adolescent son in this world he now knows is tough and unforgiving.  He becomes someone familiar to the reader.  He is every parent, thrusting his own fears onto his child and wonders how to build him a shield to save him from them.

As is customary when one suffers rejection or failure, the world becomes a prickly place.  In turn, one must become a prickly creature to combat each spike.  A simple sneeze, under most circumstances would be brushed off and forgotten under normal circumstances.  One might move to a different seat or simply endure it, but a sneeze on the back of the neck after the loss of a job and an impatient wife and a son that needs a strong role model is a different story all together.  Because of these things, Jim begins to change.  Instead of “turning the other cheek,” he faces it dead on, confronting the sneezer.  Instead of a polite, “Oh, sorry!”  He receives a blow to the foot.

The universe answers Funkle’s need for power by offering him “The Shadowy Deathblow,” by way of Georgia, a man in Walgreens who wears Macaws as epaulettes.  With one jabbing thrust of the arm, Funkle can now kill anyone or anything on the spot without leaving evidence and seemingly without repercussion.  He feels powerful and awaits the moment he can issues a shower of deathblows on his sneezer’s forehead.  So easy.

Funkle doesn’t think it through.  He harnesses a power he doesn’t quite know how to control.  Now, it’s all he can think about.  What if he accidentally unleashes the deathblow?  He accomplishes his revenge.  The bodies pile up, some on purpose, some by accident.  Somerville causes us to wonder, what are our Shadowy Deathblows.  What are the things we learn to do as adults, to survive, that in turn change us to a point of no return?  What will we pass on or choose not to pass on to the ones who will come after us?

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I highly recommend “Trouble and the Shadowy Deathblow,” by Patrick Somerville.   This was Patrick’s first publication and he has since written several novels.  

About OriginalTitle: In addition writing her blog and contributing to Writer’s Club, OriginalTitle is also writing a novel and illustrating a children’s book.  Her work has been featured in Fanzine and most recently in Comb Magazine.

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