These Are Our Demands by Matthew Pitt
They barely down one bite before the phone rings. “It’s them,” Father exclaims, and in his excitement to rise, his knees ram into the table bottom, causing casserole dishes to knock like tectonic plates.
But Mother grasps his wrist before he can break toward the phone, “Let’s not pick up. Their calls have grown so painful. And dinner is piping.”
These Are Our Demands is the second collection of stories from Pitt, the editor of the literary magazine at Texas Christian University, descant. They accepted one of my stories for publication and I decided to read this to see what sort of company I will be keeping. These are solid stories, filled with some excellent images embedded in crisp sentences, held together by style and a certain outlook on the plight of their characters.
The title announces the idea that the characters in these stories are involved in metaphorical hostage situations, listing their demands of life. In some cases, those demands are well known, in others they become clear in the course of the story. The collection is also held together by a narrative attitude that describes a world that is basically realistic, but contains a small detail that is off-base. I think of this as the Aimee Bender school of short stories, where unusual things happen in what would otherwise be the usual world – dresses burst into flames, for example. The unusual details are much smaller in these stories that they tend to be in Bender’s. They break with realism just enough to keep the reader off center, to encourage us to think about certain details.
For example, the title story, from which my quote above is extracted, concerns a Mother and Father who begin to get phone calls from kidnappers laying out demands. The calls are unnerving and terrifying and give the parents many opportunities to think about how much their children mean to them. However, in each instance, upon receiving a call, they rush to check on the children and find them at home, safe and sound. The parents live with the idea of kidnapping for months even while their children continue to lead normal lives. Then one day, the children are gone. Now the police are called, and it is discovered that now the children have planned their own kidnapping. They are gone, but again, there is no kidnapper. The story ends with the parents getting over their fears and cutting off negotiations with their children.
In “When You Get Ahead of Yourself,” a man struggles with his ability to foresee the future – but only in his immediate area and only three seconds before it happens. The result is odd and original take on the super-hero story with less science fiction than emotional reflection on our relationship to time: What do you really want to know? How do you live in the moment if each moment contains a bit of the future? In “Do The October Dangle,” the high school driver’s ed teacher hires a woman with unusual theatrical skills to booby trap the roads he takes his students driving on. In “After The Jump,” a makeshift family attempts to stay together, facing just the kind of challenges to love that everyone faces, but in a world where fresh water is disappearing, accidentally salinated by moon dust.
The effect of these little quirks is never the strength of the individual story. While in “When You Get Ahead of Yourself,” the comic nature of the hero’s super-power is clever and entertaining, the aspect of the story that grabs me is the budding love story between the immigrant super-hero and his English tutor. The story is strongest when we are focused on the tenderness of the man’s feelings and reading her ambivalence through his eyes. The three-second warning gives the last image a special power, but it is only reinforcing emotional power that comes from somewhere else. Similarly, in “After the Jump,” the story of the relationship among the principal characters – a mother, her children and the mother’s boyfriend is what drives the story. That the husband is absent because he is building luxury developments on the moon or that the world they inhabit is physically as well as emotionally parched is clever, but feels less than fully relevant.
In the middle of these stories is a mini-collection of three stories connected by their setting in the Mississippi Delta. These deal with race relations, cultural decline and capitalist development. Occasional redemptions take place in a world that is largely uninterested in redeeming itself. Here the characters – a man out on parole who finds a way to punish his mother for her racism and do penance for his own past crimes, a man returning to his old neighborhood to find the blues musicians his ne’er-do-well father knew, and a young girl convinced that sex with a former Disney star will push her life towards meaning, carry us without the pyrotechnics of an altered universe. In these stories, in which Pitt captures a world that is already quirky and odd without needing to change a detail, we are moved without trickery and, for me, they are the highlight of the collection.