We Could’ve Been Happy Here
By Keith Lesmeister
Midwest Gothic Press, 2016
194 pages, $15
Reviewed by Barrett Warner

The tree of knowledge is a well-camouflaged shrub in Keith Lesmeister’s story collection, We Could’ve Been Happy Here. The various characters are inexpert in their doings—a farm sitter has no livestock experience, an older couple amateurishly robs a bank to spice up the marriage, a drunk grandson chauffeurs his tipsy grandma to buy a garage-sale kayak. Each spells “awareness” in lower case. There is very little shame, although there’s plenty of old school regret and longing we’ve come to associate with a loss of innocence and Iowa

The stories all take place in and around Cedar Rapids. Place is important to these people, but Lesmeister is wise not to obsess over it, saying only, “Millions of years ago the glacial drifts settled and leveled most of the Midwest flat as a concrete slab but spared this region and left it full of mysteries.” And halfway through this collection I was still feeling surprised at the mention of Cedar Rapids, one of those small towns where folk remember to invite exes to children’s birthday parties.

People and places aside, Lesmeister can spin a tale, “I’d been farm-sitting out at Lyle’s for less than a day. This was late October, an Indian summer worth remembering.” Lesmeister is a master of the expanding universe, here moving from day to month to season. He opens up the blossom until the flower engulfs us. Occasionally, this writer has to break from his trance and make an assertion to move the story forward and he does so simply and efficiently: “And a person who sits and listens to you—I mean really listens—is there anything in this world more valuable?”

It’s that listening quality which lets Lesmeister write from so many disparate voices and genders. Maybe we’ve all felt someone rest her head against ours and then brought our arm around her and pulled her closer. But only he would add: “She smelled like someone who’d been walking into the wind, with a hint of lavender.”

We Could’ve Been Happy Here doesn’t shove the whole story at the reader. “Today You’re Calling Me Lou,” only has nine lines of back story buried in the first six pages. Lesmeister is not too interested and he figures we’re not either. Both the grandson and the grandma desperately want to feel authentic, and they must conjure this from an inauthentic past. There are no simple explanations for any of us and all trauma aside, there are loose cows to catch and the law to outrun and a big basketball game to win.

Although he firmly roots life matters in front of “issues,” Lesmeister uses images in series to suggest infinity—“I flick my cigarette out the window and start driving. A gust of wind kicks up dirt. A plastic grocery bag kites by”—giving his prose an elastic quality. There’s a wonderful endlessness in these stories. Each story doesn’t begin so much as take up where an untold story left off. Literary tricks are secondary gifts to a writer whose primary concern is empathy and predicament and the bigness of a small town.

Lesmeister is at his best when he identifies what a character cannot live without. Maybe a dad. Or a twin brother who is growing apart. Or a mother. And then he takes it away from that character and says, now what? And quite evidently falls in love with them. No wonder that some of these stories seem to tell several stories at once, like a flash novella, and I imagine Lesmeister doesn’t end a story so much as break up with it.

In “Between the Fireflies,” the despondent young girl and her neighbor have just killed 100 rabbits, and she sings a song she learned from her mother:

Life is beautiful like the darkness between the fireflies.
“I like that,” I said. I set my arm around her in a friendly way.
“But that’s not exactly how it goes,” she said.
“I like your version,” I said.
And she continued singing the wrong words to a beautiful song.

I think just about everyone would have ended the story on that line, but Lesmeister goes much further. As charming is that moment, these stories are full of haunt. He roughly tests our comfort in “Burrowing Animals,” a story about a Vietnam vet with a hole in his back yard. The hole frightens him. It brings back memories. His son is homeless and needs a place to live, coming home in exchange for trapping and killing what creature made the hole. The son’s estranged children come to spend the weekend with their grandparents but the son is not permitted contact and so must sleep in a camper. Of course he catches the badger. Of course he bludgeons it to death with a shovel in a dozen sickening blows. And of course he wants to call his ex-wife after the struggle: “I wanted to invite her over. Come see me, darling, I’d say. Come see what I’m capable of.”