Work Opportunities: Stories
by Teresa Milbrodt
Portage Press, 2018
130 Pages, $12.99
Review by Rick Claypool
Teresa Milbrodt’s short story collection Work Opportunities, published by Portage Press, explores work-life contradictions and conflicts through the lens of the bizarre. Simultaneously dreamlike and down-to-earth, Milbrodt’s tales explore surreal premises — the love life of a professional impersonator of great aunts or the thrill of secretly training large cats to pull a sled — unified by the way they comment on the absurd and exasperating condition of the contemporary worker’s life.
Milbrodt is a Surrealist Studs Terkel exploring the grimy and unglamorous aspects of her unlikely characters’ everyday lives, delivered in droll, deadpan prose. Consider the conclusion of “Edwin,” a story about a squirrel trainer driven by necessity to sacrifice one of his animals, the eponymous Edwin, for a job:
“Nutt-Mutt and Izzy start climbing my pant leg so I have to release the food. I don’t sprinkle it like usual, just let it drop in two heaps of fruit and cereal and stale pretzels on the grass so the squirrels crowd in front of me, pushing and shoving each other aside. I sit down on the ground hard, let them climb on my shoulders, my back, my head. Melvin waddles over and sits on my lap. He is fat and content and too interested in his apple slice. I want to throw him against the cage, stun his little body into an acknowledgment that something is wrong. But I don’t. He finishes the apple slice and gets another.”
There is love, anger, resignation, repressed violence. The situation is, of course, a bit off. But it’s also not hard to get from Milbrodt’s writing why her worker-protagonists feel the way they feel.
In the darkly comic “At the Zoo,” the small mammals just keep dying, and their mourning caretakers are unable to resist taking solace in sex with each other. “When elephants and lions and tigers die, the zoo brings in counselors for the keepers,” the unnamed, married male narrator ruminates. “That’s not the case for hedgehogs. We don’t have the budget to hire a shrink every time a shrew kicks the tiny bucket.” Stef, the woman, confesses her love, which quickly complicates matters. When the narrator fails to reciprocate, her response is pointed: “So, do you want to resign, or should I?”
Jobs sometimes fulfill deep-rooted yearnings, and sometimes thwart them. Often, if and when any pleasure is derived on the job, it is guilty pleasure. It’s telling that even as Milbrodt’s characters love their jobs, that the parts of the jobs that would seem most important to their employer — closing sales, following rules, etc. — are not the parts that make the work meaningful.
“Fat Lady to Marry Skeleton Man, Tickets $0.25” dramatizes the romantic tension between Cece and Errol, two former sideshow performers whose late-in-life reacquaintance portends the rekindling of an old flame. Milbrodt renders the characters’ physical strangeness with matter-of-fact sensitivity. Errol suggests to Cece that the sham engagement from their youth could still lead to something real. What worries Cece the most is how their unusual, aging bodies portend mortality:
“How many good years might we have together? Perhaps five or ten? When would one of us have to nurse the other? No matter how much you love someone, being responsible for their daily care is stressful, and that doesn’t account for the grief when you lose them. I am a woman who weighs costs and benefits, know I must be rational in my decision, though love by its nature is the most irrational thing in the world.”
The characters in these stories repeatedly face similar (and familiar) dilemmas as you follow them pursuing their strange passions: you realize each follows their own inexorable and relatable logic — the logic of loneliness, the logic of purpose, the logic of love. Their choices, whether they start with or lead to strange places, seem, really, quite relatable.
In “Box,” a professional painter of teeth evicts her jobless sister from their shared apartment after an argument results in a ruined refrigerator. But her forced-out sister seems to be doing just fine living in the box the replacement refrigerator arrived in, and it is the supposedly-responsible sister who seems to suffer most, straining relationships as she pointedly tells her boyfriend and other passers-by not to give her sister money. “She set fire to my fridge!” she repeatedly insists transforming herself into the kind of folk villain who stubbornly refuses to learn the lesson the of the story she inhabits..
The cumulative effect of all this weirdness is that it fosters empathy for these characters who, we see, are of course not unlike ourselves in their desires and struggles. By defamiliarizing everyday work situations and struggles, the reader’s sensitivity to the characters’ actions is increased. That the stories achieve their heartwarming effect while not shying away from the bizarre, the grotesque, and the mundane is a testament to the strength of Milbrodt’s characters and the resonance of her offbeat point of view.