by Douglas Messerli
Don Skiles Across the Street from the Ordinary (Claremont, California: Pelekinesis,2020)
A blurb for Don Skiles’ previous collection of short stories suggests that his Rain After Midnight might be “thought of as filmic, as a ‘long story short.’ The shortness of the form works like the compression required in a good poem. …As the French film director Godard said, when a reporter asked him if he thought that a film should have a beginning, middle and end, he answered, ‘Yes. But not necessarily in that order.’”
I first noticed this interconnection of words, images, and themes through a repetition of a quote by Oscar Wilde. In the very first story of this fascinating collection, “Iron City,” a young college student at Duquesne—not Carnegie Tech or the University of Pittsburgh, but the only one that he might afford to attend—finds even his current funds to be “dwindling,” and seeks out the advice his favorite professor, a history teacher, about his future plans. He thinks, perhaps, the he will join the Air Force or even, as his brother had, the Marine Corps, to which the professor responds: “Join the service! Somebody with the brains you’ve got? Be an enlisted man? Do you have any idea what that means? At all?”
Later, he falls in love the “beautiful neck” of a girl he sits behind in his psychology class, Mary Ann Filardi, with dark hair, worn long (a great many of the girls in this collection have dark hair that the male figures find attractive). But the minute he finally is able to strike up a conersation with her, the subject turns quickly from music and where it comes from to her important query suggesting where he might be headed in his life.
‘You wonder if you’ll live here—in Pittsburgh—for the rest of your
‘There could be worse things,’ he said, but as soon as he’d said it,
he knew it wasn’t right. ‘I don’t know—I just feel, what I’m
looking for, I’m not going to find it here.’
‘I understand…’ she said. ‘I feel the same thing, sometimes…”
‘Maybe I’ll go to San Francisco,’ he said, looking down towards
the city in its haze. ‘You know what they say…”
‘No I don’t know what they say,’ Mary Ann said a bit petulantly,
not like her.
He sighed. ‘They say—Oscar Wilde said—that it’s a curious thing,
but everyone who goes missing turns up in San Francisco.’
She said nothing for a while and he began to feel uneasy. He’d
overstepped some kind of boundary.
‘It’s a long way, San Francisco. A long way away.”
That’s the last we see of Mary Ann, and the young would-be scholar for that matter. All we know is that his desire to leave her world has cut off any relationship they might possibly have had.
The same quote appears again in one of the stories central to Skiles’ work, “All Along the Watchtower.” The hero of this story, who has apparently been in the Air Force for 4 years, lives in Illinois where he is now teaching at a university. This version of our hero, who has even traveled to San Francisco, is now stuck in the arctic cold of Illinois, dating a girl with the midwestern name of Judy Jones, a woman who everyone finds to be stunningly beautiful and about whom he has developed an almost jealous love, a love endangered by his own fears that he will lose her, eventually, to someone else. Yet, after the two attend a Jimi Hendrix concert in Chicago, he soon after realizes that the reason he will lose her is his own inability, despite a symbolic jump over a stick in the moonlight (a tradition of marriage that goes by to the black slaves), stems from his own lack of commitment, a sudden realization that forces him to perceive “I would never marry her, despite our October ceremony in the woods. I would leave her.”
Driving home from her Elmhurst family house, he feels sick with the sorrow of losing her, as his mind reels out the spaces between where he now is and nearby states, the Great Plains, and finally the West. “If I kept going long enough, if I could keep going long enough, I would wind up in San Francisco, the city Oscar Wilde said everyone reported missing eventually turned up. Staring into the receding darkness in front of the headlights’ beams, that is always curling out in front of you, beckoning. Come on with me.”
If one may suspect that the connection of Wilde and San Francisco is hinting of this 27-year old and the young figure in the first story may be gay, the author certainly never confirms it. The figures of these stories are mainly heterosexuals: students, airman, writers (both living and dead) professors, and traveling strangers who all try to make a difference from the past in living their lives.
Yet, with the exception of one figure (a Haruki Murakami-obsessed writer of “Ghost Ball”) is married, while almost all of the characters of Skiles’ stories, male and female, are people who suddenly disappear from other peoples’ lives.
In one story (“An Occurrence on 19th Street) a young man driving through a wealthy neighborhood of what appears to be San Francisco, encounters a girl holding a sign reading “Reject Capitalist Lies,” so attracting the male driver that he stops at a nearby Starbucks, hoping to spot her yet again. He quickly realizes how ridiculous it is that he might run into her in such a truly capitalist-based establishment, but does, after a while, observe her in the crowd just before she leaves the coffee-house. For a moment he thinks of running after her, but can imagine nothing which he might properly say (“Forget it. She might see me as another street weirdo, or an FBI informant”) and he simply walks back to his parked car.
Another longer tale, “Skegness Annie,” concerns a slightly long-in-the-tooth English girl who regularly attends the dances at the airbase in Fen county, 20 miles from Cambridge. She is no beauty, and has been to these dances for so many years that the airmen joke about her. But when she suddenly disappears the narrator laments “Annie vanished, with a sort of fame of her own. She wasn’t an English rose, but… From time to time, somebody would say they’d seen her (or heard that she’d been seen)—in Cambridge, in Ely, in Peterborough.”
Similarly, my very favorite story in this collection (“A Short History of Elizabethan Drama”) centers on a young 28-year old Shakespeare teacher, still a graduate student, who mesmerizes and delights his 49-some students, particularly the young hero attending his class who begins to read all of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets late into the night. No one misses this lecturer’s 1:00 classes, even on Fridays. Yet the central character’s friend believes the teacher, Stevens, won’t last because “There’s something wrong with the guy, essentially wrong. ,,,He just doesn’t fit.”
The narrator can’t imagine what could be wrong with a man who not only brilliantly teaches the Bard but also encourages his students to see films by Bergman and Fellini. “And then, he was gone…Stevens was gone. The news spread on the campus like the proverbial wildfire. I was sitting in the cafeteria, my hands cradling a large cup of steaming coffee, eating a donut, when I heard another student at the table say it. “Did a bunk… teaches the Shakespeare class, that one?’ As with Skegness Annie, theories of his whereabouts and the reasons for his leaving become the stuff of rumor.
At another point, a narrator goes down the list of his former air buddies, leaving us with only slight bit and pieces of their lives, now missing from his own—except for one, Harmon, whom he suddenly encounters one night in San Francisco on a streetcar before himself suddenly running off. The name Harmon reappears in other stories as well.
The redwood bar of The Odyssey in Palo Alto is transmogrified into “a long, high beautifully polished wooden bar running nearly the length of the wide room” in a Madrid bar. And the Bridgeway of Sausalito becomes the famed Malecón of Havana. The landscapes of these stories are punctuated by Pre-Raphaelite girls and men smoking Tareyton cigarettes.
Skiles uses these dozens of connecting links, quotations, images, names, smells, etc. as a kind of echo chamber of the memory to fill up all the missing persons who accumulate in the street just across from the ordinary, where, presumably, people stay put both in body and mind.
Nearly all the figures of this author’s lovely tales just don’t fit it, and have no choice but to leave the stolid realities created by the so-called “real” worlds nearby. If these missing men and women are not truly “gay,” they are, nonetheless, when compared with what is happening across the street or just around the corner, queer, misplaced, and odd.in their passions and desires. Even the wife knows how difficult it is to be married to a writer, refusing to even read about the magical realist world created by Gabriel García Márquez.
Los Angeles, July 25, 2020
Reprinted from EXPLORINGfinctions (July 2020).