Ted Gilley’s short story collection, winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize, maps grief’s breathless journey from haunted to home safe.
The 2009 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction went to Ted Gilley’s Bliss and Other Short Stories, a first collection that is as startling as stumbling upon a full, immense moon—scarred white and sharp above the trees—and just as quiet. This collection’s nine stories serve up people who are reeling in the borderland between desire and despair, trying to survive the only way they know how: by recounting their stories and scrambling to make sense of their worlds’ unraveling.
From “All Hallow’s Eve,” the stunning three-page opener that drops Sirut, a Cambodian refugee, into the sexual and social wilds of a North American winter, to the final story, “The End Zone,” which begins, “My folks are dead,” Gilley shows the face of grief, maps its breathless journey from haunted to home safe.
The trip toward bliss, Gilley tells us line after line and situation after situation, is dangerous, the destination only a brief respite in a longer journey. As the opening line of “White” indicates, the trip is neither rational nor painless, especially for those who seek certainty and love. Here are the two protagonists in their car, in the parking lot after a San Diego Padres game:
Without thinking, she hit him. And because she had not made a fist—for all that had been said, she had not expected to strike her husband—Sheila’s blow was neither a slap nor punch, but a flail of nail-tipped fingers that zipped open the skin under his near-side eye.
The seeds of Sheila’s action are planted long before “White” begins. That her husband, Grant, “doesn’t even know what hit him” only adds to the trauma, as this couple starts owning up to the everyday violence they commit, the silences they suffer and inflict as their relationship grows distant. After their altercation, Sheila escapes the car and the parking lot on foot and topless, Grant having torn her shirt while fending off another potential attack. While Grant stews and Sheila wanders, Gilley gives us their history, letting readers cringe in self-recognition at such incidents as the funeral of Sheila’s aunt: “As Sheila contemplated the finality of a quarter ton of earth heaped next to a hole in the ground, Grant, beside her, said, ‘Okay?’”
Grant, after getting his face clawed by his wife, spends his time, like many of Gilley’s life-torn regulars, reconstructing the time before the emotional wreckage, the imaginary time when life was “simple, really.” Left alone long enough, though, contemplating his scratched and bloody face in the rearview mirror, his wife’s shirt still in his fist, he bumbles onto the truth of his situation: “I don’t have time for this or any other lesson.” Meanwhile, the shirtless Sheila, semi-bent on revenge, heads into a deserted area where four sex-starved, beer-drinking boys are interested in having her for a snack, and a pair of cops converge, guns drawn, on our man Grant.
The miracle of Gilley’s characters is their stupid impulsiveness and their lightning-quick humility. In other words: their humanness. The miracle of the stories in Bliss is how that humanness hangs in each image and deceptively plain, glimmering sentence. When we find Grant on the verge of boiling into violence—and never-spoken fear, at being forced to wait for his wife’s reappearance—his hands find the car’s dashboard, and his head finds an ironic reverie. It all puts him somewhere between hangdog and humble, with the language indicating the intersection of history, chance, and choice:
nothing like the metal dashboards in his father’s cars, the kind kids dashed their brains out on back before some genius figured out that bodies continue to move forward when a car slams to a stop. Was restraint such a hard lesson to learn?
Sheila, having found momentary safety in the kitchen, and clothing, of an older female stranger, weeps openly in the woman’s arms and blushes at her unashamed love for the woman’s gift of what she herself had lost. The shirt off her back, truly. And as Grant stands “real, real still, nice and still, and nice, and quiet” before the cops, Gilley puts into his head this ravishing unthought:
[H]e understood that the worst had truly happened. He could rest now because… when things unraveled and unwound and broke and fell apart and stopped moving and cracked open, things became understandable. No—bearable.
It goes like this for all Gilley’s people. Their lives have gotten hard and their choices unexpected. From Cleave, in the title story, whose fragile hold on reality becomes the key to his heart’s desire; to Johnny, of the sweeping “Vanishing World,” whose childhood spent building miniature worlds and whose tragic sexual awakening leads to his late recognition of his mother; to Robert, of “Physical Wisdom,” whose fear in the face of an earthquake leads to a belief in the power of “slipping into a universe that [never stops] moving”; the characters’ devotion to finding bliss doesn’t keep them from actually stumbling onto it—at least for one painful, delicious moment. Their worlds are so full of pain and heart that they can only be asking of us what they demand from themselves—to be good, honest, and truthful.