Celebration and Bitterness, Comfort and Dread

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In Please Come Back to Me, Jessica Treadway examines the ambiguities of the human heart, sometimes answering life’s dilemma’s too elegantly.

Jessica Treadway, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, has written an accomplished short story collection titled Please Come Back To Me. Each of the eight stories exposes a darker side of American family life, with hidden fault lines of contradiction lurking in the human soul. Her characters become entangled in painful questions of identity and culpability; they seek change, yearn for redemption or escape. A mother fantasizes about smothering her colicky infant, whose incessant screaming brings her dangerously close to the brink; a young woman struggles with her sister’s allegations of sexual abuse and is knocked off-kilter when her own past turns out to be far different than she ever imagined.

In almost all of these stories, characters are presented with a chance to redeem themselves; some of them seize it, some do not. If there is a mantra that applies to Treadway’s work, it is “Be grateful for what you have; remain humble.” This is an important message, yet if I try to isolate what it is that gnaws at me, to identify my doubts about these stories, it is the feeling that I am being presented, however subtly, with a better way to live. Underlying Treadway’s keen insights into the ambiguities of the human heart are morals to some of the stories, artfully puzzled together for a reader to look back and recognize the signs that were there all along.

In “Dear Nicole,” twelve-year-old Gerald’s father, owner of a car dealership, sells a schoolmate’s father a new car; he boasts to his wife about convincing the unsuspecting Mr. Sprinkle that his “flocus valve” has blown. Gerald knows there is no such thing as a “flocus valve”—from outside the dining room, he hears his father “helping himself to the last piece of pie, eating it straight out of the pie dish in blueberry forkfuls” and chuckling at the man’s gullibility. Years later, when Gerald realizes he has married the wrong woman—the type who, in telling the story of what brought them together, describes her childhood friend Allie as “one of those kids you just want to slap all the time, because they always look so scared”—we get the sense that Gerald has inherited something malignant from his father, something he will never be able to extract from his troubled soul.

In another story, the young mother Norine exhibits risky behavior—pulling over to the wrong side of the road close to a blind curve to save time on her paper-delivery job—equal in weight to the kind that got her husband Jimmy into trouble. This “double standard” is described all too tellingly by her bar acquaintance from the Bowl-a-Drome. Here, too, there is a parallelism between generations: Their hired lawyer is ready to do anything he can get away with, however unethical, if he can score a few points with his crush, Norine’s mother; while Norine’s own admirer, a high-school friend and cop, lies to get Jimmy off the hook. “Every marriage has secrets, her mother had told her once. You don’t have to tell everything.” Again, the implication seems to be that Norine has inherited something deceitful—and even as she realizes that Jimmy is the only one to have seen those two parts of her, the only one who can “keep her honest,” she resents him for preventing her from living the life she feels she deserves.

When she sees that her mother has far more to offer Jimmy emotionally than herself, Norine’s rage dredges a childhood memory to the surface: On the pretext that their house’s heat wasn’t working, the mother took young Norine into the family car and left the motor running in the garage; folded in half on the kitchen table was a suicide note with the father’s name written on it. But while the mother eventually goes back to school to become a minister, and a sermon she writes—“Shirley Wants Her Nickel Back”—seems to foretell Norine’s predicament, all the preaching in the world cannot undo the damage she has done:

What happened when the train of our destiny suddenly became derailed? Well—God would help us see that the journey we’d bought the ticket for had, in fact, a different destination than the one we ourselves intended.

Nonetheless, somehow the story places the fault with Norine, and it is this contrived sense of guilt I am trying to get at, the suggestion that it is a character’s lack of integrity that accounts for her bad karma. Similarly strained is the implication that bad parenting is at the root of much of the world’s evil. Some of Treadway’s stories feel too well composed, their parts too elegantly interlocking, as though to say that if one looks closely enough, an answer to life’s dilemmas is bound to emerge. But the thing is this: It often doesn’t. The battles of the human conscience don’t lend themselves to causal explication. And so I find myself wishing that Treadway would fling herself wholeheartedly at the horrifyingly meaningless side of suffering—to penetrate the inscrutable voids in each of us that her award’s eponym, Flannery O’Connor, so fearlessly navigated.

Treadway is at her best when she depicts characters colliding with one another in the blind clutch of life, without anyone being particularly more at fault than another—when tragedy results from circumstances of misunderstanding and human weakness. In “The Nurse and the Black Lagoon,” while there is yet another parallel between mother and son and an implied cause for the son’s dark imaginings—internalized rage at his father’s lack of empathy—Treadway succeeds brilliantly in describing the state of “going blank,” striking close to the core of why we don’t see ourselves doing the things we do:

Something crackled in Irene’s brain—the physical equivalent of all the lights in the house dimming and surging again at the same time. Then the power stayed on and she forgot the flicker.

The mother catches herself in the act of forgetting something crucial she should have seen about her troubled son—in the very instant she realized that it made no sense to her. We do not see the things we don’t wish to see, things we can’t bear to see—it is this not wanting to know that wreaks the most havoc. Good intentions are crossed by bad behavior; conflicting needs create deadlocks, leaving mothers and daughters, fathers and sons incapable of true communication or communion. The stories in Please Come Back To Me resonate with repressed injury and affliction, bringing to mind that insidiously familiar “family smell of high spirits and misery, celebration and bitterness, comfort and dread.”

Andrea Scrima is the author of the novel “A Lesser Day” (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2010), literary critic for The Brooklyn Rail and The Rumpus, and co-editor of Hyperion: On the Future of Aesthetics. She lives in Berlin. More from this author →