I am partial to the short story form, and especially enjoy stories within a collection that express a common theme. Tony Press’s book Crossing the Lines (Big Table Publishing) is a mix of thirty-three such stories, in which a variety of major and minor characters struggle over love and loss and grapple with truth, however evasive.
In “Always Present, Always Watching,” Kenneth, in a failing marriage and killing time before his counseling appointment, comes across a book written by a teenage friend, LaDonna, whom he hadn’t seen in almost thirty years. Sitting in “a stuffed chair in a back corner” of the bookstore, Kenneth flashes back to vivid scenes of his friendship/near romance with LaDonna, which ended when she was forced to move away. Kenneth the adult remembers LaDonna’s lips, which looked “like someone—Van Gogh? Michelangelo? God?—had painted roses or peaches and transformed them into lips.” She is a unique, complex character, and when she moves away the reader misses her, as Kenneth did. There is a touching contrast in this story between the freshness of Kenneth’s teenage experiences, and his grown-up experience of going through the motions of a failed marriage. This story, about love and loss and memory and a search for the truth about others, is at the core of Press’s book.
Within this collection there are other stories about love and loss, including an interesting series of relatively short pieces in the middle of the book, all related to the Vietnam War. They are led by a moving short piece called, “Pancakes,” which takes place in 1970. Over breakfast in a diner, young Jake can’t get enough of the news, and “would have arranged for a daily paper to be delivered to the door of his dented but beloved bus.” His friend Rob, however, growls to Jake that he doesn’t want to “hear the body count every… day.” Still, Jake continues reading the paper until he comes upon news that hits home for him—the death of Jimi Hendrix. He leaves the breakfast table to walk outside, and soon Rob joins him. By the story’s end, we feel the loss with Jake, and we sense his friend’s compassion in a beautifully understated ending:
The guitar was put back into its case, returned to the van and tucked safely among the pillows and sleeping bags. He (Robby) drove, and the guitarist ate cold eggs with a plastic fork.
Later, in “Cookie and George” two unique high school boys named George, are both killed in the Vietnam War. They are very much individuals—delightfully nonconformist and peaceful in nature, but the story is mostly about the effect of their deaths on the narrator and his good friend, the sister of one of the Georges. As the narrator puts it:
…young men are almost always marching and shooting and dying in the name of something that just might be oil, might be patriotism. We touched their names with our hands, our two Georges among the fifty thousand.
Of the many fine stories in this book, the most memorable to me is “Cultural Anthropology” about two likeable college students. April becomes pregnant, and her boyfriend, the narrator, fails to be with her when she needs him most. April’s presence is felt most in the scenes in which she is absent from him—or perhaps more accurately, when he absents himself from her. At the end of the story, she tells him over the phone that “she felt dead,” that “her parents didn’t know, and it was hard not telling them,” and that “all she did was hurt.” The absent April, a strong character to begin with, feels most present to the reader then. Press deftly, patiently, and methodically guides the reader through the experience of this young couple. It is a story about a betrayal, about love and loss, and perhaps crossing lines from which one can never retreat. We feel for both characters.
The stories in this collection, in which Vietnam and post-Vietnam settings are palpably present, remind us how precious relationships are, and how every action changes the lives of others in perceptible ways. Tony Press is an excellent short story writer, and Crossing the Lines shows what can be done with the short story form, in the right hands.
Tony Press lives near San Francisco and tries to pay attention. Sometimes he does. His publications include over one hundred stories and poems (and occasional non-fiction pieces). His writing has appeared in Silver of Stone Magazine, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Connotation Press, Fiction on the Web, and Toasted Cheese. Tony has been nominated for the Pushcart, Best of the Web, and the Million Writers Award. He is grateful to kind editors and receptive readers.
Lou Gaglia‘s short story collection, Poor Advice, received the 2015 New Apple Literary Award for Short Story Fiction. His fiction has appeared or will soon appear in Menda City Review, Forge, Toasted Cheese, Serving House Journal, Frigg, Halfway Down the Stairs, Rappahannock Review, Thrice Fiction, and elsewhere. He is a long-time teacher and T’ai Chi Ch’uan practitioner, first in New York City and now in upstate New York. Email: lougaglia[at]yahoo.com