Train Shots by Vanessa Blakeslee

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


carpenter

Vanessa Blakeslee’s debut collection, Train Shots (Burrow Press, 2014), winner of the 2014 IPPY Gold Medal in Short Fiction, is a collection of stories that are shots of life taken at various angles on Main Street. The stories are populated with average people who are stuck and struggle to rise. They are people who probably wouldn’t get a second look if one were to pass them by, yet certainly deserve the attention from Blakeslee’s telling.

Beginning with the first story, “Clock In,” the reader is immediately pulled into a one-sided conversation between a restaurant worker who addresses a silent new hire. The interesting part is that the story is told completely in monologue and in a second-person point-of-view narration. It is quite extraordinary because it is not easy for a writer to pull off as most stories are written in third-person or first-person narration. The coolest part is that the reader becomes a participant by default and has a more intimate experience as they might imagine themselves as a character in this thoughtful and finely-crafted flash story.

Story by story, character by character, Blakeslee’s range of emotional depth and voice tugs the reader from place to place. One tantalizing moment captured so elegantly was in “Welcome, Lost Dogs where the main character, an expatriate living in Costa Rica, experiences a deep catharsis as she grapples with her own humanity and finds meaning in loss:

There are three kinds of grief: the grief of the definite, for what once was and is now gone; the grief of the indefinite, where there are no answers and so the worst is suspected; and the grief of the inevitable, for what must be lost and whose future must be abandoned.

This beautiful theme resonates in all the stories.

The first two stories have a Steinbeckian feel and seem to point a bony finger at the setting as the reader glances beyond the characters at working class life, poverty, prejudice, and a vast loneliness that surpasses hunger. In other stories, characters appear to walk on the sunnier side of the street. They seem to have it all but are lost and broken from their sorrows and regrets like the widower in “Hospice of the Au Pair,” who self-medicates with sex and morphine and Blakeslee’s grownup child-singer-star in “The Princess of Pop who checks into an infamous hotel with dark thoughts on her mind. Darker still is the story, “Barbeque Rabbit”: a mother suspects something unsettling about her child and remains inert too long.

Another vantage point that Blakeslee captures with her lens is about couples—couples that struggle with the big questions in their relationships like the woman who is caught up in the downfall of her rich, sugar-daddy-like corporate fiancé in “Don’t Forget the Beignets.” She recalls the beignets; a simple pastry shared during happier times, and comes to a deeper realization of how important it is to live in the moment because the moment is all that matters. She states:

…even to walk around and eat beignets and watch the passersby was no longer a small thing, but rather the heartbeat of life itself.

Blakeslee’s close-up shots also reveal the afterimages and cracks in relationships not always visible to the naked eye such as in the May–September relationship of a new couple who are beginning to lose their luster in “The Sponge Diver.” In “The Lung,” a charming young man must choose between a part of himself and the love of his life. In “Uninvited Guests,” another character—a young mother—weighs a different set of choices. Most poignant of all is the engineer in the cover story, “Train Shots,” who suffers profoundly from the consequences of a tragedy that he unwillingly participates in.

Vanessa Blakeslee’s story collection is thoughtful and alluring and crafted with edgy elegance. Rich stories that chronicle everyday people and their hidden struggles as they travel along the avenues of hope, despair, and destiny.

*

Vanessa Blakeslee‘s writing has appeared in The Southern Review, Green Mountains Review, The Paris Review Daily, The Globe and Mail, and Kenyon Review Online, Toasted Cheese and many others. She is the winner of the inaugural Bosque Fiction Prize and has been awarded grants and residencies from Yaddo, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, The Banff Centre, Ledig House, the Ragdale Foundation, and in 2013 received the Individual Artist Fellowship in Literature from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs. Blakeslee earned her MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Born and raised in northeastern Pennsylvania, she is a longtime resident of Maitland, Florida.

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

The Sponge Diver

Fiction
Vanessa Blakeslee


barrel sponge kimbe bay
Photo Credit: Rob Jeff

Nearly every day for six weeks, Melissa basked in pleasure at Jono’s house. They savored gourmet cheese and crackers with Mexican beer by his pool. They kissed and tasted each other’s salty mouths. They chased one another and laughed in the sunlit water, warm as a bath. But when Jono slid his hand to caress Melissa below the waist, she entwined her fingers in his and pushed him away. There remained the problem of his deafness. Jono had lost seventy percent hearing in his left ear due to a sponge diving accident nineteen years earlier.

One late afternoon Melissa started to shove Jono’s hand away and he shoved back, planting his palm between her legs. Just an hour ago she had become annoyed when he offered to upgrade her Air France flight to business class. The company which had hired her for the translating job had paid for the round-trip coach ticket, and Jono had ignored her pleas that she didn’t find an upgrade necessary. Eventually she gave in because her arguments against the upgrade were drowned out by his reasoning—“I want you to start your training session rested, and you’ll be much more comfortable,” he insisted. And she had loved the first class flight she and Jono had recently taken to the mud spa retreat in Martinique: the champagne before take off, the fancy noise-reducing Bose headsets. “Just say thank you,” Jono always said about these perks to their falling in love, and she did.

Now they had just fallen into bed, mid-afternoon. But Melissa squirmed and said, “You’re pressing too hard.” She moved her hips as if she might succeed in bucking him off.

“Why won’t you let me touch you and make you feel good?” he asked, hand still in place.

Melissa stopped squirming. Her body stiffened and she looked away, at a mask hanging above Jono’s nightstand. The mask jeered back. “I don’t know,” she said.

“Yes, you do,” Jono said. “If you don’t love me, just say so.” He rolled away on the bed and perched on the edge as if ready to bolt.

“I do love you,” she said, scrambling to put her arms around him.

“Then why do you run away from me?” he asked.

“You’re older,” she said. “It’s intimidating.”

“Ever think how you might be intimidating?” he said. “Especially when you make me laugh and flirt like crazy one second, then shove me away the next?”

“I guess not.” she said. “I’m sorry.” A moment from long ago returned, a high school boy with dark hair somewhat like Jono who was supposed to give her a ride to the burger place where they both worked. She had stalled and invited him into her bedroom after claiming she wanted to change her shorts, the boy squeezing her ass as they hurriedly made out, the boy’s only remark afterwards, “Cocktease.”

“I’m older, but I’m not crazy,” Jono said. “You’re sure there’s nothing else on your mind?”

“I’m fine,” she said, toying with the bare chain of her necklace.

“‘Cause I can tell if something’s bothering you by your voice,” he said. “The bum ear makes the other one a super listener.”

She smiled and wrapped her arms around him, drawing him closer. “Thank you,” she said. “And I want you to touch me. All over the place.”

“What’s that?” Jono said. “Just remember which is my good ear.”

“I will,” she replied and tugged his earlobe twice.

And he reached across her knees to yank open the nightstand drawer and fish out a condom.

 

The next morning, Melissa and Jono ran out of condoms. Jono had complained that he hated using them and after making Melissa stand in the shower for a full minute, naked underneath a dollar store poncho, she assured him they could investigate other options. So as soon as they got dressed, they headed for the closest pharmacy.

Each began at the opposite end of the display case and worked toward the center. Jono plucked a box off the shelf and examined the writing on all sides. “How about this?” he asked. “It’s a sponge.”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I’ve never used anything like that before.”

“Come on,” he said, tossing the box in the air and catching it. “Where’s your sense of adventure?”

“Sticking a plug up my cooch isn’t exactly my idea of adventure,” she said.

“You just need to relax,” he said. “How about we just tuck it in the drawer when we get home, that way you can forget about it. Hindu Cowboys is playing downtown tonight, we can go out, have a good time and then bam—we’ll come home and slide that sponge in no problem.”

Trouble, trouble, she thought, staring at the sponge box and back to Jono, a shit-eating smile plastered across his face. The propaganda on the sides of the box read, “Ensures the steady flow of passion for a natural feel.” So why did nothing feel natural about this?

“I think it’s better if we stay in tonight,” she said. “I don’t want to stumble home and shove a sponge in wrong when I’m half-drunk.” She almost added with my ears ringing but stopped.

Silently they sorted through the other boxes on the rack but the other options, bullet-shaped gel inserts and an odd new condom from Japan, failed to convince Melissa of worthiness.

“No big deal,” Jono said finally, grabbing a new tri-pack of condoms off the shelf.

As they proceeded toward the check-out, a display island near the school supply section caught Melissa’s attention. A deluxe edition of Scrabble. She stroked the plastic-wrapped wooden box.

“Let’s make a deal,” Jono said. “I promise we can make dinner at home and play Scrabble afterwards, if you’ll at least come out with me for two hours.”

Melissa said nothing.

“Being in a relationship is a two-way street,” he replied. “I can’t be with someone who’s not willing to meet me on the most basic level.”

“Okay,” she said. “It’s a deal.” As soon as she said it she felt dishonest, like the deal she was making was really against herself. But how was that?

“There’s another part to the deal,” he said. “We try the sponge. Tonight. Just once.”

She grimaced when she pictured the sponge on the box, the crude insertion instructions which reminded her of drains or sealing up a manhole.

“Maybe won’t be so bad. Like my hearing aid.” He tilted his deaf ear toward her as he spoke. “I got used to wearing it.”

“Right, okay,” she said. “Go get it.”

He hurried in the back to the sex-and-pregnancy-test aisle. Just as he was about to turn the corner, Melissa said, “Hold on.” She thought she said it pretty loudly, but Jono didn’t hear her. He disappeared past the two-for-one tampon display.

 

That night Jono made good on his promise. Over grilled lamb kebobs and then the Scrabble game, he told more stories about his family and his many Greek relatives who still lived in Tarpon Springs. Hardly any of his generation had stuck around to preserve the sponge-diving tradition. Melissa begged Jono to play one more game, this time using only foreign words so she could practice her French, but he packed up the game and blew out the candle. Already it was nine-thirty. The earlier they went to the show, the sooner they could be back.

Galloping banjos pounded from the small stage as Jono led Melissa toward the bar.

“Great, huh?” Jono shouted into her face.

Melissa only ventured out to clubs for blues or jazz and at home she often put on old cabaret, but she nodded. Jono asked her what she’d like to drink. She told him a rum and Coke. His face scrunched into a mixture of surprise and dismay, but he held up his finger to indicate he’d be right back.

About ten minutes passed and Melissa wondered where Jono had gone. To her surprise, she was really getting into the music, too, and so wanted to find out more from him about the band. Then she saw him walking toward her. He held out a box of Marlboros.

“This is all they had,” he said. “Hope that’s okay.”

“What?” She shook her head.

“Thought you said you wanted to smoke.”

She shook her head again. “Rum and Coke,” she said.

“Oh,” he said. “Sorry. It’s pretty impossible for me to carry on a conversation when I go out in a noisy place like this.”

“I’ll get the drink,” she said.

But Jono flagged the bartender down.

When Melissa finally sipped her drink, she noticed it tasted strange. She took another sip before realizing that Jono had ordered her a rum and Diet Coke. Tapping on his shoulder to tell him didn’t do a thing to grab his attention though, so Melissa hung back. Jono’s head bobbed and shoulders rocked to the tunes. Between the increasing bodies packing in, the smoke and Jono’s towering frame in front of her, Melissa couldn’t even get a decent view of the band. In an effort to show patience, she forced down a quarter of her drink (she loathed diet) before she got across to Jono that she wanted to go. Now.

On the ride home Jono rattled off nonstop about the band, Hindu Cowboys. Melissa remained silent. Why couldn’t she get over a simple handicap and accept that Jono was a little different? He even encouraged her obsession with demystifying French culture, a fascination which previous boyfriends had either deemed too perplexing, tried to ignore, or both. With these past dating partners and lovers she had more often than not begged, even bribed, to see a French movie at the local art house cinema together or dine at the only French restaurant in town, Chez Vincent (the reluctant partner would undoubtedly pronounce “chez” like “fez”). But Jono enjoyed foreign films in general and spoke enough French to use liaisons in ordering off a menu.

They arrived at Jono’s house. Melissa traipsed behind Jono’s lumbering, fast pace (he kind of had a hunch to his back, she noted) and once inside he dragged her into the bedroom. He pressed her close and kissed her. For a few minutes neither of them said anything.

“We could have stayed a little longer,” he said. “But now that we’re back, we have plenty of time to figure things out.”

“Let’s not talk anymore,” Melissa said. “Where’s the sponge?”

The sponge posed no problems that night, to Melissa’s relief. She and Jono joked about it, which lightened the mood. Still, she grew anxious about leaving such an odd-looking man-made object in her body for too long—the sponge resembled a miniature inflatable raft. Since the directions said she could remove it six hours after having sex, she rolled out of bed in the morning and headed for the bathroom.

But she ran into one problem after another in her attempts to persuade the sponge out. First she couldn’t find the string. She tried to hook the edge of the device with her finger; the sponge turned like a globe on its axis but refused to move downward. After varying attempts of squatting, breathing, squeezing different muscle groups and rereading the microscopic instructions, Melissa burst out of the bathroom and shook Jono awake.

“You have to help me,” she said and explained to him in detail the situation.

He rolled over and hugged the pillow. “Nope,” he said, voice muffled underneath the quilts. “I’m not pulling that thing out.”

“What?” she said. “The only reason I’m in this position is because of you!”

“You just need to relax more. Why do you want to take it out now anyway?” He lifted his head and spoke with a grin. “Maybe I want to have sex again.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” she said.

“You’ll get it out,” Jono replied. “Come back to bed, will you?”

Melissa ducked into the bathroom and sat naked on the toilet. Why, just now, did he act like he wasn’t concerned in the least? She poked the sealed sponges remaining in the box and thought his refusal funny and irritating, the irony that Jono had once gone sponge diving and lost his hearing, but he was now unwilling to help her with a different type of sponge. What kind of guy treated his new girlfriend like that, especially a smart, sexy, twenty years younger girlfriend he should consider himself lucky to catch? A dick, that’s what kind.

She remained there a few minutes, her head on her palm like the Rodin sculpture featured in her French grammar book. So what if Jono wasn’t the real problem—maybe the problem was her. Hadn’t she always savored Degas’s ballerinas and skipped over Picasso’s blue period because she preferred ease to noise? And her life was smattered with dead spots that she had chosen to leave empty when they might have brimmed over with laughter and love.

She threw the box of sponges, clothes and belongings in her overnight bag, dressed, and left without saying goodbye.

 

By that evening, much had changed.

She had arrived home from Jono’s house to spend another two hours bending, probing, and cursing the sponge, wedged tight as a cork. Since it was the weekend, she would have to wait until Monday morning to call her doctor and make an appointment. Jono called every hour that afternoon to ask about the outcome of the lodged sponge. He pleaded for her to come over, and he would try his best to help her get the sponge out. “I was just having some fun with you,” he said. “I didn’t realize you were so freaked out, honestly.”

But when Jono answered the door, he waved her inside with a big smile and turned down the music blasting on the surround sound speakers. Then he hugged her to his chest and apologized. He gave her a present of designer jeans, a silk blouse and a miniature stuffed llama made from real fur which made her laugh.

“That’s to get you to relax before the procedure,” he said. “I figured out how to do this.”

And the sponge popped out. After much laughter and forgetting, Melissa ended up spending the night.

 

The following Saturday, Melissa and Jono lounged poolside at his house. They sat at opposite sides of the patio, each fiddling with an individual laptop. Since she had the trip booked to visit the south of France, the program on Melissa’s laptop crooned out simple French phrases, a pronunciation exercise which recorded and rated her replies.

Jono jumped up and paced. “Let’s go to a show or something,” he said. “Maybe I should make a few phone calls, find out what bands are playing.”

“A band, like what we did last week?” Melissa asked. “Isn’t that bad for your hearing?”

Jono didn’t answer. Melissa shouted a few times and finally had to reach up and grab his arm to get his attention.

“I’ll just wear my hearing aid,” he said. “I thought you said you like to go to concerts.”

“I do,” she said, squelching the image of them arm-in-arm in a packed bar, Jono’s hearing aid sticking out for the world to see. She repeated the phrases after the bewitching female voice strangely emitted from the laptop, “Where is the cat? Ou est le chat?

“Or a play,” Jono suggested. “To Kill a Mockingbird is playing. Eight o’clock.”

“The cat is on the table,” said the laptop.

“I don’t know if I want to see that,” she said. “Could we maybe squeeze in a Scrabble game before we go?” To the recording she answered, “Le chat est sur le table.

“If you’d rather stay in, that’s fine,” he said. “But I hope you’re better at French than this, right?” He took the seat nearby and dragged her onto his lap, folding up her laptop with his other hand. Mid-sentence, the lilting French interrogation cut off.

“I’m just brushing up,” she said quickly. He started kissing her neck but she pulled back. “I like going out,” she said. “Only I like staying home even more. Isn’t this nice?”

“Are you afraid of me or something?” Jono asked. “Sometimes you act— repulsed.”

Melissa let out a nervous laugh. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Jono shoved her off his lap. “You sure? Look at me.”

She scooted back onto the chaise lounge and leaned over her own computer, opening its face. “No, I’m not going to.” When he reached for her chin to jerk it towards him, she stiffened. “This is stupid, you can’t make me”—and he abruptly got up.

“I want you to leave,” he said. “Right now. And don’t bother to call or stop by.” He roamed around the patio with his unwieldy walk for a few minutes, his breaths labored and jerky.

She tried to respond, but her thoughts were jumbled. A vague whimpering protest was all that escaped her lips.

“You think I’m kidding?” he said. He was chucking her things into the straw bag she used for the pool, speaking in a rasping voice that scared her. “Your little act, I’ve got it all figured out. Even if you don’t. Now get the hell out.”

 

He trailed her as she gathered the rest of her stuff, sullenly climbed into her car. Finally he disappeared inside the house. She sat there for a minute, vents on full blast, waiting for the air to cool down as she knew it would. When she looked again, she saw him in the dim kitchen, shirtless. He had balled up his T-shirt and with his back to her, rested against the counter. Then he picked up his hearing aid, jammed it into his ear and disappeared from view. Well then, she thought, it’s done. She plugged in her iPod, turned the knob on her stereo system. An Edith Piaf song burst to life, the lamenting wail reverberating throughout the baking vehicle. Too shocked and ashamed to sob or curse she backed down the drive automatically. In the trapped heat she was unaware of anything but the singer’s crackling, yearning voice.

pencil

Vanessa Blakeslee’s work has been recognized by grants and fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Yaddo, the Ragdale Foundation and the United Arts of Central Florida, and has appeared or is forthcoming in Harpur Palate, The Bellingham Review, Green Mountains Review, and The Southern Review, among other journals. She was a finalist for the 2011 Philip Roth Residency at Bucknell University and the Sozopol Fiction Seminars. Please visit VanessaBlakeslee.com for more. Email: vblakeslee[at]gmail.com