"Please Come Back to Me"
By Jessica Treadway University of Georgia Press, $24.95
"Fiction is about everything human," writer Flannery O’Connor said, and Jessica Treadway's novella and story collection, 'Please Come Back to Me,' showcases that truth. The collection, one of two winners of the 2009 Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction, presents a richly satisfying portrait of contemporary lives lived under threats both implied and overt. The characters in these stories have something to be afraid of, whether it's themselves, the people they love or ought to love, or the inconstancy of memory. Beautifully written and fully imagined, Treadway's work reminds us that the short story form is alive and well.
One of the pleasures of these stories is the way in which Treadway layers them, introducing surprising characters and complications into already intriguing situations. In "Shirley Wants Her Nickel Back,"(which wins the collection prize for best title) Norine, recently married with a young son, is living in the aftermath of her husband's disastrous decision to drink and drive, killing a girl walking down a road. Noreen's mother, a former agoraphobic with a correspondence school divinity degree, is a welcome presence in the story; her unwavering support of her son-in-law contrasts with her daughter's increasing disdain for him and her marriage. "Noreen wanted to shout, 'You killed somebody is what's the matter!' but she kept it in . . ." Her life increasingly is lived in her head, with thoughts she can't or won't share, and what follows is a costly decision of her own, after which nothing will be the same.
In "The Nurse and the Black Lagoon," Irene also is living in "after" and there's nothing "happily ever" about it. Her teenage son has set fire to an elementary school playground that she and other parents helped construct years earlier. Irene runs from the enormity of her son's history and situation, bent on constructing a world in which her son is normal, her family united and safe. It's a compelling look at the corners we back ourselves into out of what we call love.
The treachery of memory—how much, and for long, we can trust in our own recollections—plays a central role in “Testimony," in which Maxine resists her sister’s account of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of their father. Maxine, who has a casual relationship with the truth in her own life, finds to her surprise that she’s accidentally been truthful about a key childhood event—and that an event she’s convinced she is remembering as it happened is questioned by her parents and sister. "Dad?" Max (Maxine) wants to hit him in the chest—not hard, just enough to startle him into remembering."
Secrets and memory also color "Oregon," in which, over decades, Elizabeth tells a friend’s secret, and keeps a goddaughter’s, until her own mortality causes her to believe her need to have mattered in the world trumps her goddaughter Abby’s continued right to keep a particular truth to herself. "The fury on Abby’s face cracked into something softer, and she covered her eyes. Elizabeth felt hope, remembering the day Abby had waited, in this same way, to see if Elizabeth would relent and help her get an abortion. When Abby was ready to look at her again, Elizabeth smiled. In a quieter voice, Abby asked, "Isn’t it enough that you know? That we know?"
Like most of the women in the collection, Elizabeth is a beautifully realized character, made real by the compilation of the right detail at precisely the right moment. The stories in Treadway’s second collection are memorable, affecting tales of modern domestic life.
Lynna Williams teaches at Emory University in Atlanta.