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McKinley M. Hellenes

“She is a conventional woman — though she likes to imagine that she hasn’t always been, that once she wasn’t. She was something else, something bolder and guileless. Was she ever guileless? Was she ever bold? She doesn’t remember. Even now, out of the house and slinking her way through the night, she doesn’t feel bold. She feels nothing more than she ever does. She could be anywhere right now, doing anything but what she is actually planning to do.”

A woman goes in search of something one night, after the neatly ordered emblems of her suburban life are tucked away. She takes no one with her. She tells no one where she’s gone. Her purpose is best known to herself, and as she stealthily trawls the city streets for the object of her compulsion and fascination, it seems more than likely that she will encounter it… and encounter it, she does. Once the woman, this unassuming wife and mother, takes the male prostitute to bed, you’d be thinking that the goal of the story has been accomplished, with a few vigorous flesh-tangles and a nostalgic memory stamped into a bored homemaker’s carnal scrapbook. Not so… not when Hellenes is the one holding your attention rapt with each new paragraph, with each sleight of hand prose flourish.

Avid perspicacity in detailing marks every turn of the story’s progression. The writer imbues the most apparently mundane of images, such as the glow from a television screen, with surprising vitality. In so doing, the tv’s glare becomes an “auroral coruscation”, the comforting security of a vehicle is glimpsed as “a chrysalis of steel and tempered glass.” This isn’t verbosity so much as it is prose, given space to consider alternative workday outfits, descriptions that don top hats, similes that barely recognize themselves in their new and unaccustomed lustre. Hellenes polishes language with care, with a steadfast eye and ear for both the visual and auditory occupation of storytelling. When you combine this solicitude with a style that flows both compellingly and naturally, you receive lines like these, detailing the narrator’s steeling of resolve before she approaches the young man.

“She rolls down her window a few inches, like opening a letterbox in a door, and waits. Her heart is beating hard, but in slow-motion, like it is hesitating, deciding whether to keep on going or not each time it floods with a shipment of her blood.”

Duality of perspective can be a tricky navigation in short fiction, if one is aiming for a certain equanimity in voice, and even if one isn’t. If I was nervous about being privy to the prostitute’s train of thought, that concern evaporated within the opening syllables of the window into his consciousness. Indeed, seeing the assignation from his mind as well as hers brought a chorus of musings singing to the surface, not least among them this: that people who conduct sexual transactions, whether money is involved or not, never do so with just each other. There are always any number of spectres, sitting on the edge of the creaking bed, even if they’re never acknowledged (and really, maybe your backstory burns harder in your throat with the effort of having to keep it silent). The precious few words he shares with the woman, compared to the jungle thicket of his thoughts, are testimony to the truth, and usefulness, of some people knowing the deep value of silence, of how much we can hold, how little we ever need to grant.

From the top of the glimmering treasure cache of aspects I love best in this story, the following shines most undeniably: this story will make you investigate your own strongly or loosely held belief systems. I struggle with short fiction that paints a thick swathe of supposedly artful moralizing into its corridors of pseudo-subtext — you know, like a bitterly aching bit about a trip to the abortionist that’s glad-handingly strewn with pro-life sycophancy? Or an oppressive pamphlet piece detailing the cloistered sexploits of two nuns, signalling the erotic dangers of mono-gendered religious life? The problem, it seems to me, is that most writers have already decided, before they’ve written “Once upon a time…”, how they’d prefer you felt about the moral spine of their fiction. Writers like Hellenes merit respect for, well, the respect they confer on their readers. Stories such as “Jane” seem to declare nothing so strongly as: this is life. We live it gracelessly, spontaneously, messily, even when we’re struggling to be cautious. No one is immune to the daily poison or elixir of human interaction. Not everyone gets saved; very few are ever sainted. We can die, and be resurrected, on every stroke of the clock.

Reading “Jane” is a fresh, wrist-grippingly acute reminder of the fact that, though Hellenes undoubtedly is, not every writer of prose is a good writer of short fiction. If you’ve read spellbinding short stories, you’ll know that what’s needed are a different combination of tools from the same craftswoman’s lair — similar instruments, cunningly and piercingly reconfigured. Never trust a novelist who laughs off the challenges of honing a piece for brevity, paring it for tension, lining it with carefully coiled images, mistressing the necessity of each important word, of no trivial elements. It’s the job of the short story writer to ensorcell you in seconds, to ravish your creative nape with a million ink kisses, all bound up in the promise of the opening lines. Hellenes does this. It’s bewitchingly easy enough to think that the author has taken us down these furtive, dimly lit city pavements an entire, stuffed walletful of times. We feel like we’ve already made the journey with our narrator, crouched low in her armoured automotive titan, knuckles gleaming with a brand of audacious trepidation. “Jane” gives us the chance to huddle in the backseat, or to embody the narrator herself, to carefully lay out the crisp offering of hundred dollar bills on the nightstand, to figure out how much of the night we can safely hoard in our post-modern adventuresses’ hearts.

You can read “Jane” by McKinley M. Hellenes here. (This Reading Life)

Story Sundays was created by Fat Books and Thin Women as a way to share appreciation for this undervalued fiction form. All stories discussed are available to read free, online. Here’s Fat Books and Thin Women’s Story Sunday archive, and here’s mine. Want to start up Story Sundays on your blog? Yay! Email story.sundaysATgmail.com for details.

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