"The Children" (p. 197)
--A. R. Ammons
This poem introduces Maile Meloy’s second collection of short stories and its prevailing theme. Most of the flawed characters in these 11 stories are conflicted and eminently human by wanting life “both ways.”
Fielding, the wayward husband in “The Children,” feels “anchored to everything that was safe and sure,” when he is being held by his wife. But with equal intensity he longs to “let go and drift free” so that he continue an affair with a woman half his age who once taught his children swimming lessons. “He tried to determine if he was paralyzed with indecision or only mired in comfort. He tried to reconstruct his reasons for wanting to leave, but it was like trying, while heavy with sleep in a warm bed, to construct reasons for getting up into the cold” (pp. 195, 197).
But, like many of Meloy’s characters, Fielding “was doomed to ambivalence and desire. A braver man, or a more cowardly one, would simply flee. A happier or more complacent man would stay and revel in the familiar, wrap it around him like a bathrobe… There was a poem Meg (Fielding’s daughter) brought home from college, with the line, ‘Both ways is the only way I want it.’ The force with which he wanted it both ways made him grit his teeth. What kind of fool wanted it only one way?” (pp. 196-197)
In “Lovely Rita” a nuclear plant worker wants it both ways when his dead co-worker’s girlfriend convinces him to reluctantly sell raffle tickets to help her raise enough money to move elsewhere. The “prize” to be raffled is one night alone with Rita. Steve wants to stop Rita from such a desperate scheme, but, at the same time, he can’t help but imagine himself as the raffle winner.
The grieving father in “The Girlfriend” pays a heavy price for having it both ways: he suffers both the pain of not knowing how his daughter was raped and killed and learning the eventual, shocking truth that is even more painful. Searching for answers, he arranges to meet the girlfriend of the murderer. From her he learns that unfortunately he was an accomplice in the death of his daughter by notifying the police she was missing. According to the girlfriend, the rapist was returning his daughter to her home when he saw the cop cars and fled. He had never intended to kill his daughter. After the girlfriend discloses this truth to the father, “his legs gave out, and he had to sit down on the bed. He never should have come. Ignorance had been bad, but it had been infinitely better than this.” (p. 118)
In “Two-Step” a young wife experiences the pain of having it both ways when she learns her husband is cheating on her while she is pregnant, very similar to the way she engaged in an affair with him when he was still married and had a newborn baby. Alice confides to her friend Naomi, who ironically turns out to be the one having the affair with her husband: “The whole soul mates idea,” she laments, “is really most useful when you’re stealing someone’s husband. It’s not so good when someone might be stealing yours.” (p. 93).
Meloy is never judgmental about her characters or the choices they make. Demonstrating empathy for them regardless of their decisions, Meloy “writes with a soft touch and equanimity,” says Ploughshares Reviewer Chip Creek.
While the endings of these stories are crisp and conclusive, they are also often intentionally ambiguous so that we’re uncertain which direction her characters will choose when they came to a certain fork in the road. Did the brothers in “Spy vs. Spy” reconcile their differences or continue to live in perpetual sibling dissonance? Did Valentine’s mother in “Nine” ever develop a relationship that would allow her to have a soulmate and Valentine a father figure? Did Chet in “Travis, B.” ever go beyond “practice” in his relationships with women? We don’t know; we are left in limbo.
It is the very ambiguity of these stories that gives them strength, writes Fiction Writers Review reviewer Celeste Ng, because they allow us to appreciate and understand these stories in more than one way. “We understand both how much Steven wants to win Rita and how much he also wants to save her from her own plan; we understand both that Naomi sees her lover’s shortcomings and why she will stay with him anyway. There are no clear lines here, no obvious right answers. Meloy’s characters are caught between two choices that are both right—or both wrong—and that’s what makes their decisions so difficult, and makes these stories so compelling.”
The characterization of Chet, a lonely half-Native American, half-Irish cowboy who walks “as though he were turning to ask himself a question” because he suffered from polio as a toddler, is drawn sensitively but not sentimentally.
Spending most of his time in the company of animals instead of humans, Chet has little experience with women. “He had some girlie magazines that he got to know better than he’d ever known an actual person.” (p. 3) Driven by loneliness, one wintry night Chet travels snow-covered roads to the nearest town and follows a crowd into one of the few lighted buildings in the town--a school. There he finds himself in an adult education class taught by a young attorney and develops an immediate interest in school law.
Although Chet is immediately attracted to Beth and eventually drives across the state in search of her, he realizes their worlds are vastly different: “Her world had lawyers, downtowns, and mountains in it. His world had horses that woke hungry, and cows waiting in the snow….” (p. 20)
My favorite story also includes my favorite scene from this collection. One clear January evening, instead of driving his pickup, Chet saddles one of his horses and rides it to class, watching the stars as he rides. Beth rides with him after class to the local café. “He held her briefcase against the pommel, and she held tightly to his jacket, her legs against his. He couldn’t think of anything except how warm she was, pressed against the base of his spine.” (pp. 13-14)
The heartbreaking ache that Chet feels when he realizes this is the closest he will ever be to Beth is one that is difficult not to feel right along with him.
Maile Meloy's Writing Style
While her writing may be spare, writes Creek, her prose “has a storyteller’s fluidity and seeming effortlessness." She has been praised for her narrative economy, keen observations, and depiction of human weaknesses and emotions.
In both her novels and short stories New York Times Book Review Reviewer Curtis Sittenfeld writes that Meloy demonstrates “a gift for animating the seemingly banal. She possesses the ability to skirt the edge of sentimentality and melodrama, then elevate the entire work to high art.”