The Best Kept Secret » Ricko Donovan

Mike and Peggy Bulmartin are in for the surprise of their lives when their annual vacation in the pastoral setting of the Poconos is interrupted by strange phenomena from the minute they drop their suitcases. Their next-door neighbors the Henshaws seemingly don’t exist, but their odd behavior has the Bulmartins on pins and needles. —From Amazon

For me, it’s an ongoing challenge to review short stories without spoiling the ending. These stories are short by definition. When a story has a plot twist at the end, it informs everything that came before it. At times, it feels impossible to discuss the story outside of that context. Ricko Donovan’s story is called The Best Kept Secret. It announces its intentions up front. I wasn’t surprised that things at the bucolic Oak Haven retirement retreat are not as they seem. However, Donovan’s final Rod Serling-style reveal had me reconsidering every detail on my second read, and it’s a little hard to discuss my impression of the story without also discussing my interpretation of the events.

The plot is simple. Mike and Peggy Bulmartin’s pleasant evening in cabin seven is interrupted by screaming in cabin eight, their neighbors, the Henshaws. The fighting eventually stops with no explanation and the Henshaw’s red convertible disappears. For the next two days, the Bulmartins speculate about what happened and dither over whether to notify management of the disturbance. As they are drawn deeper into the mystery of the Henshaws, Mike and Peggy begin to lose touch with themselves.

Sounds promising, right? The story was certainly intriguing. Through gesture and aw-shucks dialogue, Donovan creates vivid but intentionally thin portraits of his main protagonists, Mike and Peggy, a couple straddling the line between middle-aged and old. By day, they are capable of winning mixed doubles tennis against a younger couple in straight sets. By night, Peggy applies cold cream while Mike reads the New York Times on the john. They use cell phones and debit cards, but otherwise, they could be the lead characters in a 1980s family sitcom. Outside of a few scenes of which I couldn’t discern the meaning, Donovan paces the story well by dropping a bread-crumb trail to follow through the climax to his unsettling conclusion. What I found most interesting, though, was how I re-interpreted the bread crumbs once the mystery was revealed: it is not the Henshaws who are hiding something. It is the Bulmartins. This ending, which I’m being so vague about, required me to really reach for a interpretation of what Donovan’s intentions are. Perhaps he means it to remain open-ended, but I tend to think he knew exactly what he was setting readers up for. I’m just not sure I got it.

In his only appearance in the story, Henshaw surprises Mike who believes he is alone, fishing in solitude on the shore of a well-stocked lake tucked in the woods.

“This place is the best kept secret,” Henshaw said.
“You mean this spot?”
“No. I mean this whole place. Oak Haven.”

Here, Donovan serves up his biggest clue. The best kept secret isn’t what is going on between the Henshaws and the Bulmartins. It’s Oak Haven itself. This little group of cabins in the woods, inhabited by vacationing retired folks who drink Heineken, play cards, and grill freshly caught fish, is a literal haven. I believe there’s a reason the guests aren’t very interested in the conflict between the Henshaws. In my interpretation of the story, Oak Haven isn’t real. Those vacationing there are like the community of alternate identities living inside the mind of someone with multiple personality disorder. They live in their own world with only the barest awareness of the reality of the mind or minds hosting them—in this case, the Henshaws.
Donovan drops a hint right from the beginning:

The Henshaws were summer regulars at Oak Haven, a tucked-away cabin resort up in the Poconos. Everyone who knew them said they were sort of an odd couple. But it wasn’t until the screaming and shouting escaped their walls one night that their neighbors the Bulmartins began to pay close attention.

The Henshaws’ interactions with the Oak Haven world is ephemeral. They seem to appear and disappear at odd times and from nowhere. In their encounters with Mike, both Henshaws make the finger-to-lips quiet gesture, symbolizing they are aware of their ability to create a disturbance. Mike is baffled when Henshaw predicts rain on a sunny day, but a storm does come, as if the Henshaws’ escalating violence affects the weather. The more Mike tries to save the Henshaws, the more Peggy resists.

“I have and awful headache and I’ve had about enough of this.”
“But—“
“—It’s none of our business and frankly it’s ruining our vacation.”

This is a sentiment she expresses repeatedly, and to her credit, her prediction comes true. By acknowledging the turmoil, Mike seems to be acknowledging reality, and in the real world, there is no safe haven.

The Best Kept Secret:

Writing: 3
Plot: 4
Technical: 4

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Maybe We Danced » Carla Baku

Roger Kaplan was a once a free spirit, a privileged Flower Child of the long-ago 1960s. Now, he’s trying to navigate life as a resident of the Poplar Ridge Geriatric Care Facility. The fading dreams of his youth are forever at war with the reality of his infirmities. Frustrated yet resigned, Roger is just beginning to settle into his final groove, when a mystery woman shows up, reigniting fires he thought were long-extinguished. Irreverent and touching, “Maybe We Danced” is a short story that explores what happens when the Summer of Love runs headlong into the Autumn of Life. —From Amazon

I have long been fascinated with the experience of aging. It doesn’t answer as many questions as it asks. It’s a mystery that grows more opaque with time—at least for a species that perceives its own awareness as immortal. As creatures of the mind, physical aging is utterly confounding to humans. I’m aware that I’m still relatively young, that my perceptions might be limited, or naive, or subject to change, but I envision it as a pilot, mid-air, watching her plane break apart piece by piece. A crash is coming, but that’s for the future. For now, there’s wide-open sky.

In Maybe We Danced, Carla Baku juxtaposes the youthful interiority of former 1960s free-love hippy, Roger Kaplan, with his broken-down exterior. His greatest hits memories include women whose names he’s forgotten, music that no longer comes on the radio, protests over long-resolved wars, and drugs and alcohol he can no longer get his hands on. Now he’s wheelchair-bound with emphysema and tremors. Life in Poplar Ridge Geriatric Care Facility is a series of indignities that he could never have imagined as a younger man, that even the staff who oversees them cannot fully appreciate. Good thing Roger has a sense of humor, which he deploys often, such as when a nurse tells him it’s time for an enema.

‘Kinky,’ said Roger. ‘Don’t spare the lube.’ His morning voice was sandpapery. The one time he had refused the enema, they’d given him a purgative in a glass of ginger ale. He wouldn’t make that mistake twice.

The only familiar aspect of his life in Poplar Ridge is the endless carping about baseball with his pal, Bernie. Roger has no children, no wife, no family to visit, and along with a couple of staff members, Bernie is the only person with whom he has a relationship anymore. Roger doesn’t feel sorry for himself. He’s made his own decisions. He forewent family for a lifetime of freedom. Now, he’s in Poplar Ridge by choice. But when it comes to aging, we don’t actually have a choice, do we? A custom, black leather wheelchair with chrome spokes and a Grateful Dead decal is not a Harley no matter what you call it. The nurses may take care of you, even save your life from time to time, but they are not your family. They just give the enemas and hope you don’t create more paperwork by dying on their shift. Ultimately, Roger confronts aging alone.

Somehow he’d lived his whole life believing that touch, mutual and sweet, was a bottomless well, never imagined such a thing could have a terminal moment. Now he’d wished he’d been paying closer attention, the last time, to mark it.

No wonder Roger becomes instantly enamored with a new Poplar Ridge resident who, in her appearance and bearing, reminds him of the freedom of his youth.

Baku’s success in Maybe We Danced is sharpening the soft edges with wicked details: the smell of piss near the patients’ rooms, “expressions of vacant alarm” on the faces of elderly folks who have to be tied into their wheelchairs just to keep them upright, the taste of bronchodilator meds, Motrin given by suppository, the difficulties of eating fish sticks with a tremor. Nobody wants to read a sob story about the pains of growing old. The alternative, dying young, is certainly worse.

There was a faded mural behind the unstaffed reception desk, a sweeping vista of trees and hills, perhaps the Great Smoky Mountains or some other eastern landscape. This was California and there wasn’t a native poplar tree within two thousand miles, but Roger liked the phony view anyway. Did it really matter what they pasted on the wall? All you have in the end are a bunch of pictures, he thought. Some in a shoebox, some in your head. Hopefully the ones in your head are the good ones.

Maybe We Danced tells us memories don’t die. Meeting the mysterious newcomer brings the past back to life for both of them.

Perhaps one of the greatest mysteries of aging is that even as our future narrows, we humans continue to imagine it.

Maybe We Danced:

Writing: 5
Plot: 4
Technical: 4

Our Buick Stopped Here » Lee Matthew Goldberg

In this short story, two young siblings in Nebraska are brought to live with their father’s mistress after their mother becomes institutionalized. —From Amazon

In the beginning of the story, Our Buick Stopped Here, Lee Matthew Goldberg’s main character, eight-year-old Colt, is firmly in the grip of his good-for-nothing father. After an unfortunate event leaves him and his little sister, Louise, motherless and homeless, Daddy takes the kids on a road trip across Nebraska looking for a place to land. Goldberg’s primary metaphor is the literal and figurative grasp. Sometimes holding on tight is the only way to keep what you love—your home, your family, your sanity. Other times, it’s a way to cause pain, suffering, even death:

Colt squeezed his eyes shut as the chicken flapped like a madman, and then he wrapped his hands around the chicken’s warm neck and twisted until it became limp and cold.

After a summer spent on the road, Daddy parks the old Buick outside a house like many other houses in a town like many other Nebraska towns and “yanks” the kids inside. Goldberg is detailed in his description of Colt’s experience—the heat, the smell of cat litter, “enough pictures of Jesus hanging on the walls to start a church.” Like everything in Colt’s life, it is familiar, but utterly strange. Nora, Daddy’s mistress, and the owner of the house, greets Colt and Louise with motherly affection, but she’s fat, coarse, and certainly no mother. When she opens the oven, the aroma of homecooked turkey turns out to be Spam casserole. A rubber travel cup is actually a condom filled with fruit punch (for which his father gives him a black eye—the brutal opposite of a grasp).

Daddy is searching for a new life for his kids, but only succeeds in disorienting them. They are all struggling to hold on to something lost, but the task is futile, like using Daddy’s vibrating knife-and-fork invention on a jiggly lump of Spam. The result is a mess.

Goldberg’s strength in Our Buick Stopped Here is in portraying a boy in the midst of a crisis who doesn’t demand sympathy. I felt a sense of commiseration with Colt—we see the obstacles ahead of him—without feeling sorry for him. From the opening paragraph Colt demonstrates an independent mind and well-developed self-preservation skills. “No funny stuff said his daddy’s eyes in the rear view mirror, but funny stuff was what Colt did best.” It took only eight seconds after his father exited the car for Colt to break into Daddy’s locked suitcase where he found the condom he later mistook for a rubber travel cup.

Goldberg relies too much on overly creative similes for my taste, and there’s one particularly mushy paragraph (though I won’t specify which), but overall, he does a good job of letting the story tell itself, or even better, letting Colt tell it. I’ve mentioned before that as a reader, I don’t need a happy ending. I often prefer something more complicated. But in this case, Goldberg was able to give me both. The story is called Our Buick Stopped Here. It is not the destination. Colt has places to go.

Our Buick Stopped Here:

  • Writing: 4
  • Plot: 4
  • Technical: 3

Iris » Norman Crane

If you can read this do not hit F5. Listen to me. The next decade is going to be an exciting and hopeful time. You’ll witness the birth of the eighth billion human on Earth and live through the revelation of Kurt Schwaller’s theory of everything. It’s important that you enjoy it, because in 2025 everything will change. I know. I lived through it. My friend Bakshi likes to say that we’re locked into a single future. Iris used to say that no one can take away the past. I wish I knew what you looked like. I wish I knew then what I know now. But if Bakshi’s right, at least you’ll be prepared. You still have time. Between now and March 27, 2025, they’ll try to tell you that a hundred different things are the most important. They’ll be wrong. Live, love and imagine. And, if you happen to meet Iris, go ahead ask her about the theory. She’ll blow your mind, too.
Hit F5.
Hit F5.
Hit F5. —From Amazon

For me, reading Norman Crane’s Iris is like reeling in a powerful fish only to discover a shipwreck on the end of my line. I didn’t get what I expected, but I got something intriguing, full of mystery. I suspect this was Crane’s goal from the outset.

Iris is a near-future science fiction story about the extinction of the human species. The narrator, Norman, lives in a recognizable modern world of Netflix, Twitter, Reddit and Skype. A few differences distinguish it from the real world of 2017. According to Norman:

The British declared themselves post-Christian in 2014 and post-Royal in 2019, the European Court of Justice ruled all other European royals invalid in 2020, and the Muslim monarchs pompously degraded themselves one-by-one into their own exiles and executions.

Some time well before 2025, when the bulk of the story takes place, a Swiss physicist, Kurt Schwaller, discovered the “theory of everything,” which Norman summarizes thusly: “…given enough data and computing power we could now predict the outcome of anything.”

With so arrogant a discovery, what follows—something utterly unpredictable—seems like poetic justice for the human race. Norman, a writer like author Norman Crane, is a devoted husband. He and his wife want a baby, and to their great joy, they discover she is pregnant on March 27, 2025. Their excitement lasts only two days, which is how long it takes for scientists to make the unsettling discovery that all the world’s female mammals are pregnant. (If you’re wondering, yes, Crane is quite clear that all females are pregnant, no matter their circumstances.) The uncertainty raised by this turn of events is so out of place in a world in which the outcome of every sporting event can be predicted that most people can’t deal with the news. Norman and his wife shut out the world and focus on the present, nesting like your average soon-to-be parents and ignoring the future. It’s a dream come true for Norman. Throughout the story, he refers to his wish to be loved, and his fear that he never will be. For a brief time, it seems his wish has been granted. Only three months into the pregnancy, a mysterious force kills all the female mammals in an instant, his wife and baby included. As you’d expect, this event effectively ensures humanity’s extinction. The second half of the story addresses the post-female society and how Norman adapts.

Before the “event,” Norman’s world as described by Crane is largely female. He encounters and interacts primarily with women in the story. After the event, one might expect society would no longer function, that the subtraction of all women would have a catastrophic impact. But that’s not what happens. The forms and functions of global society go on without much disruption. Hetero sex and interaction appear to be the only thing missing in Norman’s woman-less world. I can’t decide if this was Crane’s intention or not. Speaking as a woman, it’s certainly a dismal view of our place in society. Yes, Norman seemed happy with his wife, but he doesn’t name her or describe her in even a cursory manner. After she dies, he keeps her clothes in a garbage bag for months, which is fitting because she is never more than a form, never more than the computer-generated actresses developed for movies and pornography after the world’s women disappear.

There is one woman of flesh and blood in the story, but she is not Norman’s wife. In fact, she is not a part of the story’s events. She is the frame, the story’s book-end and namesake, Iris. Norman thinks back to a late night in 2015 on a building’s roof with a party thumping a few floors below, in which, drunk and high, Iris relates a doped-up religious theory speculating that God is a cyclops going blind. There’s more to it than that, none of it particularly enlightening, but Norman remembers it years, decades later, as if it reveals something about the present. Is that what Norman thinks is happening? I couldn’t figure out how the theory explains the pincers, the Twitter message, the “event?” (These are odd details I won’t spoil for you here). Are we supposed to piece all this together or just feel comforted by Iris’s theory even if its wacky and wrong?

I may be mistaken, but after two reads, I’ve come to think Crane is contrasting Iris’s wildly unpredictable theory with Kurt Schwaller’s theory of everything, the very mechanism of prediction. The specifics don’t matter so much. We’re all tomatoes “growing and existing for the enjoyment of someone else.”

Iris is a complicated knot of a story. Every loose end entangles it further, and I haven’t even touched on the cult, the mass suicide, or the symbolism behind Iris’s name. The story is overflowing with interesting details that make its world feel tangible, real. This was not the work of a day, or a week. Crane gave this story a great deal of thought. His style is tight and efficient. He has written Norman with the right amount of retrospective analysis and reflection. It has a great pace, and just enough emotion to help readers empathize with Norman. The story is at its best when the plot is advancing. I think the conversations with Iris drag it down. They certainly deliver the kind of tedious, grating back-and-forth you’d expect between two baked partiers. For me, the story works much better without them, but they are obviously important to Crane. He names the story for Iris and opens and closes with those conversations. I can only think the whole point is disruption. Like a pregnant woman who expects a baby at the end of nine months, we think we know where the story is going. Silly, arrogant humans. Prepare for the plucking.

Iris:

  • Writing: 4
  • Plot: 4
  • Technical: 4

EveryThought » Andy Gorman

Told by the tortured conscience of an underground scientist, this A.I. Science Fiction short story explores questions about the human experience, what justifies a life, and what it means to live. “EveryThought” was written for Science Fiction and Post-Apocalyptic Fiction fans, but its short length and readability make it an easy introduction to those unfamiliar with either genre. —From Amazon

Andy Gorman’s EveryThought, like human life, ends in the darkness where it began. In his Amazon summary, Gorman calls his narrator a “tortured conscience,” which is an interesting noun choice. The narrator’s conscience is at the heart of the story, but it is told by his digital consciousness—thoughts in the form of ones and zeroes, data “grown flowery with time” and fragmented by information decay. His consciousness becomes immortal after his “conversion,” the circumstances of which he relates in the story.

By the narrator’s broken account, he was a scientist living out his remaining years alone in a bunker beneath the post-apocalyptic world, creating a female artificial intelligence, Atalanta. The chapters describe her evolution from voice, to body, to sentience, and are named thus. In a literal sense, the narrator is both her creator and the creator. Though he knows her limitations—she is not human, she is machine—he cannot prevent himself from forming a human attachment. He begins to see her as a daughter, and like any doting father, is powerless to resist her wishes, though, intellectually he knows she has none.

She wasn’t capable of desire, not then. Want was just a word in her massive vocabulary. She could express it in any language: yo quiero, je veux, voglio. The words didn’t make her desire real, but like a father, I obliged.

Through their father-daughter dynamic, Gorman speaks to the inherent paradox of parenthood. It begins with wonder at the new “creation,” so much a part of the parent, but so curiously separate. At first, Atalanta is only words on a screen, but soon she has a voice, a sense of humor gleaned from social media archives, and philosophy from texts the narrator himself hasn’t read. Before long, he is experiencing pride at their shared accomplishments—for a time, she can have none without him. He engineers a body for her, she perfects it.

Her first steps showed flaws in my engineering. She fell immediately, but she wasn’t damaged. Like a toddler, she quickly got back up, and she never fell again after that. Her code adapted to my design mistakes. What would’ve taken me days to troubleshoot, she figured out in seconds. I was incredibly pleased, as proud as I imagine a father would be watching his daughter take her first steps.

When a parent devotes himself to transforming a half-formed person into a whole, the necessary consequence is that one day the child supplants the parent. The tool through which Gorman achieves this transformation is a writing prompt #EveryThought (read with historical curiosity by the narrator) in which people write in stream-of-consciousness weekly for 30 minutes and share the result on social media. Uploading the #EveryThought compositions to Atalanta seems to give her access to the workings of the human mind that she previously lacked. From that point, she shows unexpected canniness, self-interest and yes, desire—for all the information contained in the digital archives the narrator possesses (presumably the breadth of the internet prior to the apocalyptic event).

Gorman strikes a neutral tone for the narrator, probably to hint at his altered nature, no longer human, no longer capable of feeling, but still capable of remembering the time when he did. The story has an easy readability, which can be beneficial in science fiction of this length, as Gorman must set up a remarkable number of details for readers in a short space without overwhelming the softer themes and structure of the story. I appreciated the glimpses of Atalanta’s sense of humor, though they were rare. Her first words were “Goodbye world,” a satisfying nod to the “Hello, World!” programs students use to learn new computer languages (it is also obvious foreshadowing). She playfully asks the narrator to scratch her back—self-awareness humor with dark undertones. I was less convinced of the necessity of the story’s opening and closing, stream-of-consciousness chapters. Though I enjoyed the symbolism Gorman deployed here (they are both called Zero, and are book-ended with a line of binary that I translated as “loop”), I saw no stylistic reason why the consciousness should express himself differently in these chapters than he does in the intervening three chapters where the story develops. The abrupt tone change didn’t make much sense to me and felt a bit self-indulgent. In the “From the Author” afterword, Gorman explains that the idea for the story came while he was in bed, and he wrote the Zero chapters at that time. This might be an example of those “darlings” writers are always implored to kill. Let’s not forget, however, that Gorman is this story’s doting creator and father, so I suppose I should cut him a little slack for his indulgence.

EveryThought:

  • Writing: 4
  • Plot: 4
  • Technical: 4

The Lady in the Paint » David Xavier

A man bored with his life and marriage discovers, in the least likely place, an outlet for new possibilities of love and excitement. It’s a path he jumps for immediately, a path where madness and fantasy collide, and the consequences are all too real. The Lady in the Paint is a psychological thriller that delves into reality and fantasy, madness and cognitive dissonance, and how, depending on who you ask, things are more real than we know. —From Amazon

David Xavier’s The Lady in the Paint has staked a surefooted answer to the question of whether love is madness. For John, the narrator, it is certainly so. Love is madness in various ways: delusion, paranoia, anger, vengeance. As a character, John exhibits a brand of middle-aged disdain we often see in the bored, cynical men of literature and television. He seems to have no particular affection for his wife, and though his interaction with others in the story is limited, he’s an equal-opportunity backbiter.

As the story opens, he’s loitering around the punch bowl at an estate sale while his wife shops. His attitude:

Usually I couldn’t stand those things, estate sales. Buzzards going from room to room of old furniture that smelled of warm dust, digging through junk and trinkets, the owner of which was recently put under. It was all old and used, last handled by arthritic hands that had handled their last.

(Last handled by arthritic hands that had handled their last. I had to re-read it to recognize its deliberateness.)

He is repulsed by the worn-out and desires something fresh. With his character set thus, Xavier works quickly to upset his expectations. At the estate sale, John finds and falls in love with the Lady in the Paint—an oil-painted portrait in a frame, leaned against the wall in a stack of other art. From the story’s first paragraph, it’s obvious that John doesn’t see the Lady as a work of art, but as a real person.

But she had the mischievous look of a hidden secret and she directed it right at me, she froze me in place. My eyes went to her repeatedly and we kept catching each other’s glances until it didn’t matter anymore, there was no hiding it, and we stared without apology.

Three paragraphs in, we realize she is not in fact a real person, but a painting.

The moment their eyes first “meet,” an obsession begins. John hangs the painting in his office, and, at first, tries to keep his fixation secret from his wife, Sylvia. Once the Lady descends from the frame and into his real world and their interaction becomes physical, he abandons subterfuge. It takes a while for Sylvia to comprehend the nature of the change in her husband. Before long, she gets fed up with him and takes action.

As narrator, John employs language that emphasizes how his possession of the Lady is as important as her possession of him. Possibly, it is this element that matters most because it is clear he does not possess Sylvia. They may live in the same house, but they occupy entirely different worlds.

Interestingly, Xavier dispenses with any description of his characters. “John” is a stand-in name for Everyman, and I’ll add, the pseudonym of a man who picks up prostitutes. I determined based on context that John was middle aged. Nowhere do we get an image of John or Sylvia. More notably, John, the obsessor, doesn’t describe the object of his obsession. It would seem a most natural thing to detail exactly what makes the Lady so desirable. She is, after all, a depiction of a woman, not a real one. Her existence is entirely within her details. How is she composed? Does he see only her face? Does he see her torso? Her body? Is she young? Blonde? Within a setting? Against a solid backdrop? By declining to describe these things, Xavier is stressing how little they matter. Her relationship with John begins and ends in her gaze, which follows him everywhere like the old haunted house trope.

The Lady in the Paint has obvious parallels with Bax Foxbite’s Every Little Death, which I point out only because I find it intriguing that out of eleven stories I’ve reviewed, two share a fantasy of an unhappy husband who’s obsession with an image of a woman turns her to reality. Both men have wives that do not conform to the ideal. Both stories end in violence.

Perhaps it’s a coincidence. Or maybe this fantasy is all-too common.

The Lady in the Paint:

  •  Writing: 4
  •  Plot: 3
  •  Technical: 3

Dear Lucy » Jay Budgett

He is 88 and she is 70. He will pass within the hour. He is 67 and she is 49. He lets her hold his hand as she leads him through his house–the house of her childhood–one last time. He is 48 and she is 30… In this poignant short story, John Anderson views forward life through a backwards lens. —From Amazon

For a light read, Dear Lucy, by Jay Budgett is pretty heavy. As the summary states, it starts on John Anderson’s death bed, holding the hand of his daughter, Lucy, and scrubs backward. Much like rewinding a movie, Budgett stops every so often to play it forward until you get your bearings. Each section is a short vignette, weighty with details that connect the dots of John and Lucy’s relationship. The story’s end, in a waiting room, is also the beginning.

Budgett has written a spare, poignant, present-tense narrative steeped in realism. The vignettes are carefully balanced between Norman Rockwell moments when John is a perfect, loving father, and the inevitable ones in which he makes mistakes. It’s important to note, however, that even in the low moments, Budgett is painting an idealized portrait of fatherhood. They are all, in their way, drawn from a Hallmark card fantasy. The brilliance of Dear Lucy is in Budgett’s ability to steer readers through a haze of golden “memories” into the waiting room chair entirely convinced we know where we are going when John’s name is called. Then, with measured emotion, Budgett proves us wrong. It is rare for a story to hold onto its twist so effortlessly.

As for the twist itself, I can’t give it away (though I may have already done so) without changing your experience of the story. That leaves me rather limited with how much I can unspool the story’s implications. Budgett says nothing that hasn’t been said before, but I admire the restraint he uses, the delicacy with which he treats John’s experiences.

Beside him, on his deathbed, Lucy has placed a sprouting potato:

She doesn’t like flowers. Doesn’t understand why you’d bring something soon to-be-dead to those who were dying. Potatoes, she has told him many times before, are still growing, still changing.

Budgett’s cleverness here is in the dual reading of his metaphor. To the dying man, it speaks of ongoing life, but it speaks just as loudly to the young man in the waiting room at the story’s conclusion for whom one path ends and another begins.

Dear Lucy is a joy to read, but uniquely, it is a joy to re-read.

Dear Lucy:

  • Writing:
  • Plot: 5
  • Technical: 4