Bittersweet stories are my favorite kind, and the stories in Keith Lesmeister's forthcoming collection We Could've Been Happy Here (May 2017, MG Press) strike the perfect balance between humor and sadness, love and loneliness. The collection explores the distances between people, with the most profound chasms often between people standing right next to each other.
We meet several men who have lost custody of their children, the heartbreak of past failure undermining their paths forward. In "Burrowing Animals" the main character returns, emotionally and financially defeated, to his parent's home. Relapsed into and stifled by old roles and routines, and prevented from seeing his kids even when they visit the grandparents, he reverts to teenhood, hanging out in a camper in the backyard, sneaking girls and smokes. When his father charges him with handling an invasive badger, the task becomes a vector for all the power he has lost in every other aspect of his life. In "Nothing Prettier Than This" and its bookend companion, "We Could've Been Happy Here," another failed dad is also up against nature and himself. He faces a herd of rogue cows which, like his life, have wandered out of his control. Rounding them up seems just about as possible as getting his life back on track, though he gives it his best shot. Meanwhile, in "Nothing Prettier," he finds companionship with a young woman with her own fraught circumstances. They are close, but they also both know the intimacy is temporary. In the closing story, he falls in with a family that reminds him of all he has lost, but in the daughter's grace finds a measure of forgiveness.
A child's alienation from his or her parents is another common theme, sometimes taking the form of grief. In maybe my favorite story of the collection, the beautiful and heart-wrenching "Lie Here Next To Me," a young woman leaves school and her messy personal life to care for her dying mother. Her mother is alive, but already gone, she is no longer responsive. Sally turns to a beloved but now impractical shared ritual: baking a cake. While Sally's lover tries to reach her by phone and her grandmother shows up to assert her competence, Sally closes them all out, locking herself and the cake in the bedroom with her mother.
I received a complimentary advance review copy of We Could've Been Happy Here from the publisher.