(Austin, TX: A Strange Object, 2018)
Belly Up, the title of Rita Bullwinkel’s debut collection, feels like a wave of the hand, beckoning us to cross the threshold of a serving house, walk over to the bar, and lift a shoe onto the brass footrest – and if the bartender standing on the other side of the sticky varnished surface is Rita, then settle in. She has a few stories to tell.
Even if accidental, the allusion to a serving house as a metaphor for a work of fiction fits Bullwinkel’s sensibility, as she affirms the value of physically sharing time and space in order for us to not feel so alone in the universe. Conversation helps. Argument even. However, nothing replaces the energy transfer that occurs when one body touches another. Otherwise we risk getting trapped in our mindspace, where things can get rather strange in a hurry.
Because of their focus on the transcendent possibilities of human interaction, the pieces in Belly Up are all, in a way, love stories, or their opposite, which is sort of the same thing. From this starting premise the narratives typically progress in one of two ways: after having drifted into the fantastical, they relax back into a more mundane moment in which existential pain is alleviated, to some degree, by connection; or they move from a common situation to the mystical, which often feels like a phantasmagoria in which the characters’ increased isolation is expressed through a grotesque vision of the physical body.
Consider “Clamor,” the final story in the collection, where the perspective shifts across the minds of nine characters, eight of whom – Phyllis, Carol, Lillian, Izzy, Olivia, Anna, Cliff, and Sam – have gone to experience the performance-art of the ninth, a medium, in order to contact their dead. Most of them, like most of us, have a cynical appreciation of the psychic’s game, which involves vaguely describing a ‘presence’ of some sort, allowing the people who have agreed to submit themselves to the ritual to project their unresolved traumas into the middle of the circle. We sense the reluctance of the participants to being spritzed with “holy water to keep the ghosts from following them outside her home.” But then, suggesting there indeed might be something to it, the medium seems to see those who are absent more clearly than those with her in the trailer – hence her fantasy of cutting open her clients’ “brain containers” and “dipping into each of their brain buckets with a ladle and pulling out from the depths of their bowls their thoughts, which looked like sticky thick woolen thread.” Has there ever been an image more opposite to the idea of an ethereal soul?
While these are not linked stories, it does feel that Bullwinkel’s characters have something to say to each other. At first blush, Joe from “Burn” seems like he’d be the type to get how to cope with the vagaries of intimacy, as he has a history of helping widows when the ghosts of their dead husbands won’t leave them alone, in part by feeding their grief with his delicious food. When Nick King dies, Joe marries his wife Miranda, cooks for her, and then when Joe himself dies it turns out Nick’s ghost had been there the entire time, in the attic. When Joe says, “What did you really want me for, Miranda?” he means, Why can I not be everything? It seems Joe could stand for a shot of whimsy contained within the advice Austin gives to his girlfriend in “God’s True Zombies” on how to zig-zag in order to escape an alligator: “They’ll never catch you if you run like a goon.” She proves she understands the metaphorical gist of this idiom when she talks about Austin having dated a stripper who worked at the “world-famous Mons Venus.” These strippers, these experiences, are always there, like a demented ghost: “They dance in your brain…Dancing, dancing till the rest of the plastic lining your brain cracks under the weight of their tiny feet, splintering into the bloodstream, and God decides it’s time for you to leave Florida, it’s time for you to go home,” which means back to her and the more normative life she provides.
It comes down to perspective. Nick King’s ghost doesn’t have a problem with Joe, because he’s preferred. Whereas conversely the unnamed protagonist of the opening story “Harp” has a problem with her own marriage because she can’t accept the selfless affection of her husband, who, like Joe, expresses love through preparing food. Bemoaning her lack of reciprocation, she says, “Why couldn’t I just take my new feeling and give it to him?”—the ultimate fantasy of the solipsistic introvert. (Oh that we all could subscribe to that service.) She experiences a halting epiphany that allows her to come to terms with the fact that she can’t ever be fully known because she is more than one thing, that it is okay for the halves that comprise her whole to remain unknown to each other. The presence of love in her life will not make her complete, but at the same time this love doesn’t necessarily have to fall apart in concert with the chaos of the universe. However, after a pleasant morning of love making and her husband then serving her “a hearty breakfast of eggs and bacon,” she finds herself again riding the rhythms of her moods, honking at a couple taking too long to cross the street, making “her eyes bulge and look out at them.” We understand. Morning commutes can derail all of our best intentions.
The “Harp” woman is young. In a later story, “What Would I Be If I Wasn’t What I Am,” Franny, an aging woman coping with the loss of her husband, with whom she had shared over four decades of her life, proves the best love can survive even the death of the person providing it. Franny has gained the wisdom that another’s mind is always, in part, unknowable – and she understands the importance of the physical taking over when language fails. “When we had sex,” she says, “I knew I was coupling with some combination of Ray’s mind and his body, but mostly I just liked thinking of us as two bodies. It was simpler that way and easier for me to understand.” Ray’s presence within her speaks to how we don’t need a frank vocabulary to feel how bodily impulse transcends conscious thought. In the denouement, Franny is by herself at her artist’s residency in Yellowstone, in Cottage 18. She sees “creep in” at the edges of herself “only a wanting, only a desire to not be left…a desire to be more than a single person trembling, a wish to be forever coupling so that [she is] not just simply alone.” Amazing how that “only” feels thankful, that she is able to feel what was right in her long marriage to Ray, despite its problems. Her wish, a prayer, is not just for herself, but for all of us.
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Trevor Payne teaches English at Radnor High School in suburban Philadelphia.