REVIEWED BY A.E. WEISGERBER
RIFT is a collection that will earn repeated readings from many readers, flash fiction aficionados or not. It is rich in types and forms of flash, from triptychs and prose-poems to episodic and hybrid works, with a special devotion to scenes under 500 words.
Short as these stories are, however, they pack the wallop of the best poetry, and invite that level of reflection. The book can be approached from many pleasant angles. Stories can be read singly, in pairs, by section, or one might unbraid the counterpoint presentation by first reading one author, then going back to read the other.
The collection is the product of an online writing collaboration that editor Bud Smith had suggested between Fish and Vaughan. Smith said, “I was already in an online writing group with Robert, and I pitched the idea of his next release being a split book with Kathy. He was floored by the idea, so the next day I asked her if she would want to share a release with Robert. Something about their work seemed like different sides of the same coin to me.”
RIFT is arranged into four chapbook-length sections of 18-20 stories. The storytellers pass the mic back and forth, story-to-story. Smith said that once they decided RIFT would be the title, “the writing took on more of a shape that was elemental and geared towards the project in total as RIFT and not so much just free writing.” He added that once the four sections (Fault, Tremor, Breach, and Cataclysm) were determined, it became easier to write toward those themes or to put stories in the most appropriate pile.
Smith said the two writers edited content together, and then decided on the dynamics of the story interplays and pairings. “That’s it’s own art,” Smith said. “Like sequencing an album.”
The segues between stories are part of the magic of this collection. For instance, the “small beating heart” at the end of “Neal Figgens” segueing to the “heart hammer” of “Help, I’m Alive,” or the men at an OCD meeting who cannot communicate (“Dew Drop Inn”) to the very human goodbyes said by men who can (“Grip”). The transitions are smooth and gratifying for a reader inclined to seek harmony. Smith said, “The stories are matched because they feel like brother and sister or hero and villain or some reflection of even the same person or thing in a mirror that is on some unknown angle.”
That is the heart and soul of this collection, and the hallmark of these two writers. As bad or strange as circumstances may be, each story has a spark, a soulful action, which brings hope and connection.
The stories of Kathy Fish hearken a poem by Stephen Dunne, “Sweetness.” In it, the poet says: “Often a sweetness comes / as if on loan, stays just long enough / to make sense of what it means to be alive, / then returns to its dark source.” This little sweetness can be seen in many of Fish’s stories, including urchins who decorate themselves as a metaphor for self-preservation against gender-bashers in “Sea Creatures of Indiana,” the sound of a cuckoo reminding a child to be brave in “The Four O’Clock Bird,” and a father’s calming support intercommed to a clerk under siege via a Merle Haggard song in “Everything’s Shitty at Price King.”
A representative story of Fish’s is “There is No Albuquerque,” where a girl born with horns on her head (perhaps because I wear my glasses as a headband more often than not, I can relate) has parents who say they “rescued her from a dumpster,” spends part of her life “in a pen” at a freak show, then “in a cubicle” at a snippy office. Our plucky heroine finds true love in the one person in the office who doesn’t seem to mind her disability.
“I had rushed out one morning to get Mr. Kenton breakfast. He’d worked through the night and sat slumped in his desk. Crossing the street, I dropped the Styrofoam container and it sprung open. Some of the food spilled on the pavement and I scooped it up with my bare hands before the light changed.
When he opened the container and stuck his plastic fork into the omelet, I could no longer keep it in. Don’t eat it! I dropped it on the street!
Mr. Kenton examined the omelet and said, It looks okay to me. He ate every bite.
There is no one like Mr. Kenton.”
Fish’s stories are counterpointed, step for step, by Vaughan’s, with their sexy anguish and pragmatic outcomes, their young men bewildered by life’s adventures, and committed to decamp and continue on in search of satisfaction. As Yeats might say, his protagonists are characters “isolated by deed” who saw the rungs of the ladder behind them, remaking themselves always “where all the ladders start,” in that old rag and bone shop: the heart. For instance, the spiritual tumult of the single-sentence “What Lies Ahead,” whose narrator sees the future like tumbleweeds he “somehow magically misses,” or in “Postcards of a Life” when an estranged son receives his father’s postcard messages of a bird, a mother, Waikiki, and a funeral home, and even “Four Cups.” Although in the story the four cups are an architectural detail that helps a young man find a brownstone in NYC at 3AM; in the tarot, the four of cups can represent someone who misses the opportunity to look deep within himself by being distracted from his goal.
A story illustrative of Vaughan’s style is “Temporary.” In it, the narrator recounts short-lived jobs from his past.
When I was at the law firm last year, Mickie, one of the paralegals, told me I’d make a good candidate for the bar. I told her it depended upon whether the bar served Ketel One. She bellowed, and I saw every tooth in her horsy mouth, and beyond: throat, epiglottis. I could have been swallowed by it. These companies do that: and then spit you out.
I worked picking flowers in the towns around Humboldt County: Arcata, Eureka, Forestville. I had to watch a video about picking safely, equipment handling, in a room with three Mexican men. The video had no Spanish subtitles and they looked wary, waiting for the images to somehow translate enough of the story. I realized that this was the story of their lives, and mine, too. How much more did I comprehend any of it than they did? How much less?
Anne E. Weisgerber has recent stories published or forthcoming in New South, The Airgonaut, Tahoma Literary Review, Vignette Review, and Jellyfish Review. She is a freelance fiction editor, and has been nominated for Best Small Fictions 2016. When not teaching, she’s working on a novel that spans five generations, or hanging out with the #fishtankwriters. Follow her @AEWeisgerber, or visit anneweisgerber.com.