In Gale Massey’s new short story collection, characters are balanced on the edge: on the rim of the Grand Canyon, on a diving board above a pool full of danger, on the verge of escaping a loveless home, on the shore of an ocean they might walk into or the lip of a bottle of pills they might take too many of.
How they get to that edge and what they do about it propel Rising and Other Stories. This is the first story collection from St. Petersburg writer Massey, following her impressive 2018 debut novel, The Girl From Blind River, which won a Florida Book Award. She’s a Writers in Paradise alum and has been nominated for Pushcart Prizes in fiction and nonfiction.
In most of these 13 stories, the main characters are girls or women. A few of them read almost like fables of transformation: The girl in Swimaway lives unhappily with her fisherman father in an isolated camp on a riverbank — for many of these characters, water is a route to change, for good or ill. Then a boatload of evangelicals comes along and baptizes her, with surprising results.
Elise, the middle-aged woman in the title story, takes an out-of-character solo trip to the mountains of Peru that turns out to be even more of an adventure than she expected.
But most of the stories are firmly grounded in the real world, often in its grittier neighborhoods, many of those in Florida.
Bristol, the protagonist of Not So Fast, has grown up in the foster care system after her mother went to prison for opioid use. Bristol is the oldest girl in her group home and a surrogate mother to the younger ones, always comforting and responsible.
She’s about to turn 18 and age out of the system, and she thinks she’s found a great job opportunity. Her roommate tries to talk her out of it, but Bristol tells her, “I know it pays good money. Better than Walmart or Waffle House. And it’s a lot easier to dance your way through life than it is to sling pancakes.”
She’s also eager to audition because, secretly, she’s thrilled by the attention of the elegant woman who offered her the job. It turns out, though, that it’s not a strip club job — Bristol would be safer there than in the oceanfront mansion full of predators where she finds herself.
The title character of Ivy Waters is another young girl. She’s growing up in the early 1960s, a time when terminal illnesses like cancer weren’t discussed in public, or sometimes even among families. So Ivy knows that her beloved father, Hank, is wasting away, but not why. She expects him to “find the words that would put the world back in order,” but this time he can’t.
During a family fishing trip, which is Ivy’s idea of heaven, she says to her brother, Frankie, “I wonder what’s wrong with Daddy.”
Frankie is older but, because he seems to be on what today we’d call the autism spectrum (something else not discussed in those days), she’s often his caretaker. She’s shocked by his insistent response — “Nothing’s wrong with Daddy.” — and its spin into anger. Massey skillfully captures Ivy’s sense of confusion and loss as what’s wrong becomes unavoidable.
A daughter’s loss of her father is also at the heart of Long Time Coming. Dory Hastings never knew her dad. She knows the story of her birth: “To put it plain, Burdine and Clara married too young, a ranch boy and a town girl, neither of them yet eighteen. They’d dated a few months in their senior year, got drunk on prom night and made a baby that bound them together.”
The marriage lasts about as long as you might expect, but for a reason the family doesn’t discuss. Before Dory was 2, her father had left for Key West. It was the 1980s, the plague years of AIDS. “It wasn’t long before Burdine was dead from a disease that, in his mother’s words, ‘afflicted his kind.’”
Dory’s mother remarries, to a preacher with a young son. Dory grows up in a small Florida town, with no contact with her father’s family and the feeling that she’s an outsider in her own. As she approaches high school graduation with no plans, a counselor pushes her toward community college, a path Clara approves because it means she’ll continue to receive Burdine’s Social Security checks, her only inheritance except for an old duffel bag.
But Dory secretly enlists in the Army. It’s 2003, and she’ll soon be sent to Iraq. While she’s at the bus station waiting to head for boot camp, a man in muddy cowboy boots sees the duffel and strikes up a conversation.
He leaves her with his business card. Iraq will take her to the edge of death, but that card will be a ticket back to a place where she can come to know her father, and herself.
Rising and Other Stories
By Gale Massey
Bronzeville Books, 142 pages, $28
Tombolo Books will present a virtual launch party featuring Tyler Gillespie (The Thing About Florida) and Gale Massey (Rising and Other Stories) at 6:30 p.m. April 15. Register at tombolobooks.com/?q=h.calevents.