“And you may ask yourself, ‘Well, how did I get here?'”
That’s a line from The Talking Heads’ “Once In A Lifetime.”
It’s the underlying tug of Wendy J. Fox’s new short story collection, What If We Were Somewhere Else. (Note there’s no question mark in the title; it’s a statement—an assertion. A comment.)
Well, how did I get here? How did we get here? How much control do we have? Are we in charge?
What If We Were Somewhere Else is about work, that “constantly unavoidable thing that surrounds us.” The stories follow office workers from an unnamed business in downtown Denver. If the business had a thousand workers, you get the sense that Fox could write a thousand stories and show us their individual humanity, foibles, desires, traits, wants, and needs. Fox cycles through seven principal characters, the stories intertwine in a tight and intricate braid.
What If Were Somewhere Else is about technology versus organic matter. It’s about work-life balance. It’s about affairs and longing. It’s about work as identity, relationships as identity. It’s about finding your spot in the universe. It’s about a cranky, clunky air conditioner—well, H-vack system. It’s about comfort and becoming comfortable. It’s about manmade things that go haywire. It’s about becoming untethered from routine. It’s about working. And not working. (Another line from that song: Into the blue again, after the money’s gone…)
Fox crawls inside the heads of her characters and administers truth serum. In “Pivot, Table” it’s boss Kate: “I’m not sure if it was worse to sign the separation papers, or if it was worse to sign the severance papers at my job. We hide from our marriages inside of work, or we hide from our work inside of our marriages, and then when both are gone, it’s like the those dreams we had in elementary school, naked on the playground.”
In “The Empathy Chart,” it’s about financial analyst Heather, who has broken her foot while walking home from work: “This is not like me, and on the last bumps of steps towards the front door, I am unmoored. I remind myself I have weighed the risks. I remind myself that I am unhappy with an unhappiness much bigger and much harder to deal with than a broken ankle. The ankle will heal, eventually. Even if it does require surgery after the twenty-nine more days until the cast comes off, there is a plan in place.”
Fox’s style is unfussy, clear-eyed, and efficient—fifteen brisk stories in less than 200 pages. The details are delicious. “I don’t remember so much about him, but I don’t remember nothing. It wasn’t dramatic when he left. One day he was there, and the next day he wasn’t. I had this cereal bowl with a bear’s face in the bottom of it that I really liked, and sometimes he’d use it for an ashtray. One of the bears eyes was burned out, but I still ate from it.”
Okay, one more example, the opening lines of “Tornado Watch:”
“In our home there were sounds. One of the sounds was like a balloon slowly deflating, a sound of almost nothing, of air being displaced, and I am not sure if we knew it was the canary in the coal mine of our marriage, which we were not paying much attention to. So we did not worry about it in particular, we only complained about the unplaceable noise. We checked the fridge and all of the other major appliances, we checked the HVAC system, we poked around outside the house and found nothing, but we kept hearing this slow, gentle wishing punctuated occasionally by a squeak, or the call of a suffocating bird.”
(Not the only H-vack system in these stories. Or respirator. Or other mechanical breathing apparatus.)
And then comes “The Human” and we leap ahead into a bit of sci-fi with moon colonists and yet the basic issues are the basic issues—food, shelter, air, safety, procreation, and the issue of controlling your own fate. Something has shifted dramatically in how people live on Earth; urban centers have been abandoned. Hemp instead of dairies, soy instead of feedlots. We follow Michael as he’s recruited to join the colonists and then, when matters go awry there, it’s off to Mars. And another fate. When it comes to life decisions, life choices—who do you trust? And how far will you go?
Same as it ever was.
Same as it ever was.
Reading What If We Were Somewhere Else is highly recommended. So is pondering the insightful questions it raises.