Wings and Other Things
by Chauna Craig
Press 53, 2022
reviewed by Lisa Slage Robinson
A wistful melancholy permeates the sixteen short stories and flash fiction in Chauna Craig’s latest collection, Wings & Other Things, snapshots of women stuck at the crossroads, at the junction of stasis and action, hesitant, unable or unwilling to move forward, at least for now. Their existential inertia is heightened by Craig’s poetic landscapes, an Andrew Wyeth-like sense of isolation amidst the motion of swaying cornfields, ocean swells, frantic highways and desolate, endless train tracks. Tension arrives with the brittle dry heat and thunderstorms, while earthy smells and the taste of too sweet wine, conjure memories of past lives. Their present is haunted by choices, what could have been or should have been: a different life, or a different future, perceptible but just beyond her characters’ fingertips.
In “Smoke, Iowa,” at the direction of a lover who has long since disappeared, a woman drives out of the city and down a gravel road searching for railroad tracks and what forever feels like.
“She told me to pick a small midwestern town, to find the railroad tracks that are never far away. Stand in the middle, she whispered as she stroked the nape of my neck in a way that made all my skin tickle, like a thousand salmon brushing past on an urgent upstream journey. Pretend you are the zero point on an infinite number line. To the west are all the negative numbers, to the east the positive numbers. That, my dear, is what forever feels like.”
When a driver in a farm truck stops and asks her if she wants a ride, she declines but imagines what the ride away from that place and that moment would feel like, speeding away “from the zero where I’d planted myself, waiting for a nudge in the right direction.” As she watches the taillights disappear, she recognizes those “small red lanterns” as markers for “where I’d never be.”
In “Teresa of Pierce County, Nebraska” a woman for whom God has “deflated like a helium balloon” lies down in the prairie and waits for lightening to strike. In “Scorcher, 1979,” a travel agent who has never ventured beyond the high plains, advises a young couple looking to escape the heat, “You can go anywhere. Depends what you’re willing to pay.” While in “Zero Set,” a resident at an addiction rehab center tells the young narrator/housekeeper who has put her life on hold to care for her mother that, “The best preparation for the future is to live as if there were none.”
In the midst of their inertia, Craig’s characters declare again and again, I’m here, I’m still here, I’m alive.
So, where’s the stickiness? What’s holding them back? Why can’t they put one foot in front of another, follow the yellow brick road, choose a path? Perhaps for Craig’s characters, the certainty of the stagnant present is preferable to the uncertain, unknowable future.
While firmly grounded in contemporary, middle American and feminine spaces, these stories play with time reminiscent of “The Garden of Forking Paths” (1941) by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges. Does time and therefore existence begin and end in a fixed moment in space? Is it linear, or circular? When a person is faced with alternatives, does she make that one choice at the expense of all others? Or perhaps, as suggested by Stephen Albert, soon to be murder victim, sinologist, translator and interpreter of Ts’ui Pen’s chaotic novel, The Garden of Forking Paths, time is a labyrinth, a web of divergent, convergent and parallel times, raising the possibility of alternate, parallel or multiple lives. Time is a bifurcating path “forever, dividing itself toward innumerable futures.”
Craig raises these philosophical and metaphysical questions in “Impossible Blue,” the first story in her collection which also serves as asterisk, instructing the reader how to interpret the subtler references, the Easter eggs in the stories that follow. “Impossible Blue” recounts a familiar narrative – the one who got away, the never quite realized love story of two people who always meet in transition. The two unnamed characters meet in the first year of college, those early days of big ideas. They fill their nights studying philosophy and astronomy, meditating and listening to New Age tapes, discussing Chaos Theory, sharing past-life regressions all of which fuel a deeply felt yet unconsummated connection. She leaves at the end of the first year. But the possibility of them is rekindled with letters and a visit here and there, a drive up Hyalite Canyon to sit by the lake and watch the moon or a hike along the rocky Oregon coast. She carries that possibility in her pocket, a Polaroid of the two of them, arms around each other, the ocean behind them. She doesn’t know that she has lost track of him until the invitation to her wedding is returned to sender, address unknown. But she can still conjure him, at will, and actually feel the warmth of his body. His name is so common, an internet search produces “thousands of possibilities as though he were all them, split by a million decisions into a million people…” And then her husband is killed while jogging by a driver “who had made the simple, irreversible choice to grope for a pen…”
After the funeral, she returns to the Oregon coast – to find that place and that moment she shared so many years before with the college boy. Her footsteps on the beach are washed away, the sea mist begins to dissolve the images on the photo, proof of an alternate life. She realizes that the ongoing sorrow for the could-have-been love is nothing compared to her current present sorrow, that “…she’d carried a fake ocean for years. The one before her was ten times more blue, and frameless.”
In “The Garden of Forking Paths,” the great-grandson of Ts’ui Pen, the man who murders Stephen Albert, believes that things only happen in the present, that the past belongs to memory and the future belongs to imagination.
But memory is a sticky, malleable thing. If it only exists in the mind, did it truly happen? Or if two people remember an event differently, do their contradicting memories create parallel realities? In “The Ferryman’s Smile” Melanie and Camille rent a small bayside cottage on what Camille calls the Island of Rain and Shitty Local Wine. Old resentments resurface. Camille doesn’t like the loganberry wine that reminds her of an alcohol fueled costume frat party. Camille insists that she dressed as a Freudian slip and that Melanie dressed as the Grim Reaper. Camille’s recollections leave us wondering who had sex with Marty Barker, Camille or Melanie? Was it rape, consensual, did it happen at all? Or is Camille just gaslighting Melanie, the girl who was too drunk to fully remember – framing the narrative as a passive aggressive grab for control over their strained friendship?
Craig offers no resolutions, but like Dale the director at the rehab facility in “The Empty Set,” she reminds us with her achingly beautiful prose that “it’s all the same story with endless variations.”