Crossing the Lines by Tony Press

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Lou Gaglia


Crossing the Lines by Tony Press

Crossing the Lines by Tony Press

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.

pencilLou 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

Poor Advice by Lou Gaglia

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


Poor Advice (and Other Stories) by Lou Gaglia

Poor Advice (And Other Stories) by Lou Gaglia

Poor Advice (And Other Stories) is a zany collection of short stories written by Lou Gaglia. The characters are a mixed group of average Joes and a few Janes with troubles that are reminiscent of characters from a Woody Allen film. Indeed, there is a Woody Allen-ish tone in many of Gaglia’s stories and characters; some of whom are as quacky as they come.

Take the woman from the story “The Lady with the Red Van.” The setting is a gas station. “The lady” pulls up in her red van and fumes when she has to wait for another customer to move their vehicle. Meanwhile, another conflict regarding “matches” is in progress that creates two dueling conflicts. Gaglia balances this story beautifully with a protagonist whom I liked very much—a bystander, a philosophical modern Plato-in-khakis who doles out wisdom to a young, sheepish, and very perplexed gas attendant. The story escalates. I don’t want to spoil it so I will say no more. (However, I feel compelled to admit that at the time of my reading that I was a little afraid of her and I am presently mindful of how I park my car at the pumps.). And this is one of the first stories in Poor Advice

I have so much more to say.

Quackiness aside, the stories are also steeped in realism, The characters have jobs, they love, they hate, and they wonder—they think about life’s biggest questions which sometimes appear disguised in ambiguity as well as in absurdity. Gaglia’s fiction is as strange and as real as just about any truth I had related to me in a cafeteria line, bus depot, at a wedding or in front of public bathroom sink by people I know, don’t know (or don’t want to know) that have relatives with names like Uncle Marv and my cousin, Beryl. Gaglia is pitch perfect with character development in the short story form.

He also writes masterfully with selective vocabulary. Gaglia is a true wordsmith. A thumbs-up on well-chosen language: accouterments, somnambulism, soporifically, aplomb, hubbub… (I think my IQ may have increased a bit after reading.)

Also noteworthy are the many long and winding sentences like this hook line in “The Ventriloquist”:

His name is Sal, and him and his wife—my crazy sister Rita—live downstairs from me and my wife, but you’d think their apartment was just some rest stop since they know their way around my place easier than their own and have become experts at cleaning out the refrigerator.

Again, well chosen words and interesting sentence structure that together build a small universe, a hallmark in the short story form. I counted 51 words. This impressed me so much that I thought about diagramming that particular sentence, something that I haven’t done since my elementary years. I didn’t have paper and pencil available at the time as I was inside a pick-up truck driving on a rainy late winter afternoon on Route 84 somewhere in Connecticut south of Hartford, so instead I decided to map it out in my mind and that was more mentally satisfying than any crossword puzzle or sudoku problem that I had ever encountered. Thank you, Lou.

Shall we talk adverbs? In “With Doleful Vexation,” Gaglia had some good times creating a plethora of dialogue adverbs: magnanimously, bashfully, brazenly, histrionically, soporifically, and officiously…

This sentence is a favorite: “Glad to meet you, my friend,” he said televangelically. Instantly, I have an image of a man with a smile like that of another man in a pinstripe suit and shiny shoes holding a microphone, standing in front of a pulpit and a rainbow of stained glass depicting Jesus’ crucifixion. Gaglia does this again and again throughout his stories, making this reader pause and wonder and smile. It was almost like reading a script. Moreover, each character has a voice that is individual and unique; their dialogues are terrific, full of colloquialisms and mannerisms and vernacular.

In “Hands,” a young man addresses the object of his affection in a letter that reveals much about him bit-by-bit in those winding sentences I mentioned earlier that seem like a one-sided dialogue practiced in front of a mirror. In “Letters from a Young Poet,” another young man goes to Italy and writes home to his sweetheart and once more in “Correspondence” another young lovestruck character’s “positive” and “negative” letters to Karen showcase more word play.

Structure is also worth mentioning again.

Some of Gaglia’s stories are like an artichoke in this regard. One of my favorite story structures from Poor Advice is “A Teen Tale” where there is a story-in-a-story (ergo, the artichoke). The main character is a writer who addresses three mystery editors in his conspicuously naive and inappropriate query letter, in which the writer-character embeds a story he has written in the main body of his letter. Cool. Gaglia also crafts his stories in multiple points of view: first person, third person and even second person. Second-person point of view is a particular point of view that is not easy to pull off, but Gaglia does it with style and wit.

Another element to many of the stories in Poor Advice is this sense of timelessness. The stories take place in the modern world but what decade? ’00s? ’90s? ’80s? ’60s? Maybe it’s the absence of technology in some. Yet one might argue after reading—is technology really missed? I would say: no. There is, however, a strong sense of place. Maybe that is why Woody Allen came to my mind early on. Many of the stories take place in New York—in Brooklyn, in Queens, and on Long Island. It is clear that setting is most definitely a strong motif. Though I’ve never lived in NYC, I’m a sucker for NY stories. Love ’em.

Here’s one:

After a two inning sampling of my new Brooklyn neighborhood’s little league, my old friend Mike, who I was seeing for the first time since our Long Island days, wanted to sit behind the backstop with the rest of the crowd and study their behavior, but I frowned and looked away, hoping he’d leave it alone, that we’d go over to the basketball courts instead and get into a three-on-three, or watch the old men play bocce.

(Wow. Can I come?)

This is the first sentence in “Little Leagues.” And what a sentence. In fact, it’s the first paragraph. The story goes on to see the two characters witnessing an ugly baseball game with Brooklyn parents shouting insults and sarcasm to the umpires, the players, and their coaches. Having attended scores of small town baseball games, I thought I heard them all until now.

I think that Lou Gaglia’s stories have a sense of nostalgia which I found to be at the epicenter of the collection—a nostalgia for the people, the places, and good times and the bad ones, too, that remind us of us, our old or other selves. (I miss Queens even though I’ve never been to Queens.) Poor Advice is an imaginative collection of stories for purveyors of the short story form as well as for readers who enjoy a new twist to the postmodern take on existentialism, rich and creamy with nostalgia, wit and humor, and surprise much like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates. My advice, dear reader, is not to sample Lou Gaglia’s stories, but rather to read ’em all!

*

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.

pencilShelley Carpenter is TC’s reviews editor. Email: harpspeed[at]toasted-cheese.com

Firm Iron

Fiction
Lou Gaglia


2011 Belmont Stakes - Khan of Khans in the Paddock
Photo Credit: Daniel Huggard

On the first day of ninth grade, after a sweaty recess, I wanted to tell the kids sitting around me in social studies that I still had a bump on my head from being kicked by a thoroughbred in July. But instead I quietly gazed out the window while Mr. LaFalce talked on and on. I wrote in my notebook, not the jumble of words about the Huns that he’d written on the board, but instead about that girl Cindy who worked at the barns, wondering if she’d ever gotten my note, or if I’d ever see her again. The answer I kept writing was no and no and no.

I wrote my nos very tiny, because Barbara Kelly kept looking over; then, because everyone was so serious, because Mr. LaFalce touched his mustache whenever he made a point, because Barbara Kelly shifted to get a better look, and because stupid Kerry Kern was sitting all serious and studious in the very front row, I burst out laughing, and when Mr. LaFalce stopped, drawing out the word “Huns-sss”, and stared at me, my laugh turned into a cackle.

From her front desk Kerry gave me a look, like I was an idiot, but I smirked at her, hating her guts now, a stranger after one summer, and remembered sitting on my curb crying after she broke up with me in June.

Mr. LaFalce was about to say something to me but I held up my hand.

“I’m all right,” I said. “All right now. Sorry.”

But as soon as he started teaching again, as soon as his voice started up, as soon as he touched his mustache, I cackled all over again and hid my face in my hands, hee-heeing, my body shaking, until he asked me if I’d like to take a walk through the hallway to laugh it all out, whatever it was. I went, letting some compressed laughter escape before reaching the door.

The second I was in the hallway alone, though, nothing was funny. I just stood there, my face like stone, looking at the tiles across from me and waiting for the bell to ring.

*

My father’s back had gone out on him again that summer, so I had to wake up with him at four a.m. for the trip to Belmont Park to help with any lifting. He needed help filling and carrying the water buckets and walking the horses after they’d had their runs. He tapped on my door the first morning, and I lay there looking at the ceiling and smelling coffee before slowly rolling off the bed, and by the time I staggered to the kitchen he was there, having already finished his shower. We ate breakfast silently, and then I got ready and we were out the door before five.

He started to nod off while driving along the parkway and then on the Long Island Expressway, so I kept an eye on him and said, “Dad!” whenever his eyes drooped. I watched the shoulder of the road, making sure he didn’t veer over too far.

Before reaching the barns, though, he stopped at a bakery and picked up coffee and donuts for both of us, and the Daily News for me so I could see how the Mets did.

I was kicked on that first day, walking my first horse, a two-year-old named Firm Iron, just up from Florida. My father told me to yank on the halter shank if he got fidgety or didn’t want to move, that I had to show who was boss. But on our first turn around the inside of the large oval barn a barrel scraped outside, and Firm Iron pulled back and shuffled his feet, so I yanked on the shank. He settled a little but the barrel scraped again, and Firm Iron stepped backward and pulled his head up away from me, his eyes wild. I yanked harder, and then up he reared and down he came, his front left shoe crunching into my head and me going down hard. I rolled away, seeing his feet scramble by me, and then I crawled behind a partition stacked with hay. Soon my father was there, lifting me upright and gripping my shoulders. He looked intently into my eyes before pushing me aside and running off to catch the horse.

A girl who worked for another owner on the same side of the barn sat me in a room and cleaned the cuts on the top side of my head and on my forehead. She was pretty and maybe a little older than me, and I heard someone call her Cindy.

“I’m all right,” I said, and pulled away a couple of times because the alcohol stung, but she showed me the bloody gauze she had pressed into my sore head. While she reached back for another strip, I felt at the bump already forming and glanced at her. Then she wordlessly wiped down the cuts on my forehead, and I watched her walk away with her ammonia and bandages.

My father appeared in front of me with the halter.

“What’s that?”

“Finish walking the horse.”

“How about tomorrow?”

“No. Now.”

“I thought that stuff was just for falling off horses.”

“Let’s go.”

So I walked Firm Iron around the barn for thirty minutes, and every time he moved his head, even a little, my heart flipped. When another barrel scraped somewhere, I whispered, “It’s okay, it’s okay”—shakily, to him and to myself—and kept it up the whole thirty minutes, except for when I passed my father.

Later I was tired, so I went into the car’s back seat to take a nap, but my father was suddenly banging at the window and woke me up.

“Are you crazy? You can’t go to sleep after getting kicked.” As I climbed out of the car he wanted to know whether I was stupid or what.

*

The same songs kept creeping into my head the whole summer. In the morning, instead of letting my father scare me awake with his knocking, I set the music alarm clock, and what jolted me at four a.m. was often enough either “Suzanne” by Leonard Cohen or “Afternoon Delight” by some ridiculous tra-la-la band I’d never heard of.

I liked “Suzanne,” but it was the kind of song that didn’t stay in my mind long. Leonard Cohen didn’t sing, just kind of muttered, and muttering didn’t rate reruns. But “Afternoon Delight,” one of the stupidest songs I’d ever heard, ran through my head for entire days.

My father didn’t let me near Firm Iron any more after that first day. He was too hard to handle, he said. But I still walked Fearless Queen and Winter Tide. Fearless Queen walked funny and kept stepping on my foot, maybe on purpose because she liked to play, often trying to bite men’s hats off when they passed her stall. Winter Tide was more manageable, except for one time when there was a loud argument outside the barn and he tried to run. I held on, pulling back on the halter, and for a second I was off the ground, holding him, until he finally stopped and walked again. That was the only time he ever got jittery.

During my breaks, after I finished walking the two horses, I went up a long set of concrete steps to the cafeteria, and I remember that on that first trip up, or maybe it was after a month, or maybe it was each time I climbed them, I thought of what my future was going to be. I wondered at everything ahead and had no idea what was coming. It was just a little thought, or maybe it was a long deep one—I don’t remember—but it was like a promise in the air and it made me stop on those steps.

At the cafeteria the men stood out front with coffees and rolls and racing forms. Cigarettes dangled from many mouths. I smelled the smoke and the coffee and the eggs—and the manure smell was still there. I got my own coffee and roll and stood outside away from them, but watched their hard worn faces. They were all barn workers or hot walkers or exercise boys. The trainers like my father weren’t there. And the owners, wearing suits, only came around the barn area once in a while.

From a short distance I watched and listened to the men, who often talked about which horses would win which races that day. And judging by the looks on their faces, they didn’t allow themselves much hope that their horses had a chance.

*

Carlos was my father’s barn worker. He was a nice guy and very funny, always making jokes in very broken English without smiling. One day he held a swatter and killed over three or four hundred flies on the barn walls and the horse stalls. “Kill the fly, kill the fly,” he said, methodically tapping them dead.

My father liked Carlos but frowned whenever he was late. He must have drunk his dinner, my father muttered. So a couple of times my father had to clean the stalls himself, and I helped him—although I was slow because the manure made me tip-toe too much.

One morning they said that Carlos threw up in his sleep and would have died if his girlfriend hadn’t been there. My father looked over at me with huge pained eyes.

I often sneaked glances at Cindy, my heart fluttering whenever I passed her or even saw her from far away. She walked with very sloping shoulders and had pretty blue eyes, and she was so relaxed and matter-of-fact about everything. I wished I had paid more attention when she’d taken care of my cuts and head bump, and I ran several—this time smooth—talks with her in my mind that never happened, leading all the way up to marriage proposals. “Afternoon Delight” played on the radio somewhere in the barn at least once a day, and I shook my head, because both she and the song were driving me crazy.

*

Near the end of August, I sat in my father’s car while he talked to his horses’ owners, and instead of reading the Daily News, I wrote to her—something about wishing I knew her, and wishing her into my future. But I didn’t say what my name was, or even that I was the guy whose head she cleaned up, just that I liked her and thought of her all the time, and that I wished I knew her one way or another for life somehow, even as a friend. I wasn’t particular, I wrote.

I went around the outside of the most isolated part of the barn, a turn where I knew she’d soon pass with one of her horses, and I threw the tightly folded note over the wall where it would fall into the walking path. But there were three other walkers in the barn besides her, and I tried not to think of how bad the odds were that she’d be the one to pick it up. I was sick of lousy odds by that time, late August, having listened so often to those guys outside the cafeteria.

*

During my last few days at the barn I kept my head down or turned away whenever I passed her with Fearless Queen or Winter Tide, but I watched her from a distance when I was near our stalls. On the last day, I forced myself to look into her eyes when she passed with a spotted white horse, but she only glanced over briefly, stone-faced. My father told me it was almost time to go, and I nodded and watched her walk away, taking a picture of her in my mind—her sloping shoulders and her pretty eyes and her easy casual walk and her calmness. I frowned to myself and looked into Firm Iron’s stall. He was staring at me from the back of the stall with his wild eyes, and I called him a jerk.

Before we left, the owner and some other guys in suits came around to talk to my father. I hung up brushes and combs in the tack room and when I came out, one of them asked me if I liked working there.

“I like the horses,” I said, “but I don’t like the people.”

They kind of laughed to each other with red faces, but my father turned to give me a dark stare that only I saw.

*

“Afternoon Delight” popped into my mind during my stay in the hallway on that first day of ninth grade. I stared at the tiled wall and missed everything about the barns, not just Cindy but Carlos, too, who never came back. I missed driving in the early morning with my father, and the bakery’s donuts, and the sports section, and even those guys near the cafeteria with their rolls and coffee and racing forms and shared defeat.

Never in my future would I miss that crazy Firm Iron, though, or that snob Kerry Kern, or Mr. LaFalce’s stupid droning voice. I knew that.

In my mind I stood on those long steps to the cafeteria again, wondering about my future, but I was sure I wouldn’t do any more wondering in LaFalce’s class, or ever laugh again and let any of them know that I felt anything at all. I would just do what I was doing right there in the hallway—stare blankly—and then maybe I’d get to stay in class.

pencil

Lou Gaglia’s short stories have appeared recently in Rose & Thorn Journal, Spilling Ink Review, and Halfway Down the Stairs, among others, and one is forthcoming in Blue Lake Review. His first short story collection is forthcoming from Aqueous Books. He is a long-time T’ai Chi Ch’uan practitioner who still feels like a beginner. Email: lougaglia[at]yahoo.com