We Love Anderson Cooper by R.L. Maizes
Celadon Books, 2019
When a reader finishes the title story of R.L. Maizes’ first collection, We Love Anderson Cooper, it is likely they will know they are in the hands of a writer with compassion and empathy, someone worth reading. In the title story, the reader meets an adolescent boy named Markus who is preparing for his Bar Mitzvah, but who balks at memorizing a required passage in Leviticus: “If a man lies with a man … both have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death.” His disagreement is more than intellectual, he’s in love with another boy, and he has not come out to his family. He draws a line at reciting this passage, perhaps the most serious decision he has made in his life. He cannot speak the words with conviction and be true to himself.
But Markus’s deep dilemma does not make for an inward or heavy-handed story. Instead, there are moments of great humor and warmth as well as moments of unexpected, crucial action. Markus’s surprising encounters with people in his family and the synagogue and with the boy he loves make for a funny and tender tale. After he reveals his orientation to his parents, they earnestly comment, “We love Anderson Cooper,” showing their bafflement at what it means to be homosexual and how this inner discovery has impacted their son. It is a sweetly funny remark even as it tragically falls short of understanding.
In the second story, “Collections,” Maya loses her partner of 14 years, and because they were not married, she doesn’t inherit the apartment where they lived, despite the fact she cared for him for many years. How does a bereft woman in a dilapidated apartment barter for the repair services she needs? She gives away her bed — the physical bed itself — and other objects, until she strikes an agreement to make collection calls for the worker who is repairing her place. The story has a hopeful resolution, although it makes clear that loss and pain are necessary markers on the walk toward loosening burdens.
There’s much to admire in the economical opening lines of Maizes’ stories, sentences that chart a map that the story follows as it develops.
In “Tattoo,” “Trey knocked hard, and a slim woman wearing a Mountain Ink baseball cap came to the locked door of the tattoo shop.” An apprentice tattooist, Trey, at first a rank beginner, grows in his ability until he begins to tattoo women who have survived cancer but lost parts of their breasts.
Nipples weren’t part of Trey’s plan. But tattoos hadn’t been, either. He led her to a back room and mixed colors against her skin, blending pinks, whites, and tans, until the tones were just right. He inked three-dimensional nipple tattoos, more real than the real thing. Melanie went home and posted photos of the tattoos on her breast cancer support group Facebook page.
Trey changes on the inside as well, and the way he, and his art, change makes for a haunting story.
In “No Shortage of Birds,” The first line is “A month after Charlotte’s father died, her mother brought home a parakeet.” The adolescent girl’s working out of grief with the bird she never wanted is an interesting portrait of loss.
In “Better Homes and Gardens,” “Neal pulled up to a small ranch house with a cracked concrete drive, a pizza-delivery sign gripping the roof of his silver BMW.” What happens when a down-on-his-luck man still driving a BMW delivers pizza to people who can’t or won’t pay for it? The ride is all downhill for Neal, but again there is a lightness, a softness to the tone that tells us that in the end, we don’t have to worry too much.
In “Couch,” “It was a strange couch for a therapist’s office.” The couch that a therapist had for decades envelopes the therapists’ clients, who, in turn, seem stuck in their particular miseries. But when the couch collapses she tries to replace it with a different one, she encounters resistance from an antiques dealer. The dealer says that the couch reacted negatively to the therapist. “You arrived, and if I’m not mistaken, the couch got a little sad.”
Later, when the couch is in the therapist’s office, it changes people in a semi-magical way, and they are so much happier that the therapist practically loses her practice.
A story needs both a strong opening and artful execution. In many of these stories there is a quiet fabulism in which animals are highly influential in their relationships with people and sometimes even dominate, as in a story called “A Cat Called Grievous.” A cat who has lost her kittens, perhaps to coyotes, is taken in by a childless couple and comes to control the household, so that when their baby arrives, things get interesting. The toddler imitates the cat, but then one day the cat claws the child: “Grievous stepped onto the child’s lap. Her claws were like scythes. Brushing Neda’s arm, they carved lines in blood.” After that, the cat is a bone of contention in the family, not easily resolved. With the husband, Weldon, frequently on the road, it is left to the mother, the narrator of the story to tell us how things evolve with Grievous. “Grievous could be savage, but Neda (the child) didn’t seem to mind.” The narrator possesses this story, which is, in the end, haunting and strange.
While Maizes’ stories have distinct narrators and situations, there is a thread of loneliness as people try to fight through, bargain with, or simply survive the ordinary losses and griefs that arrive. It is said that each character in fiction has one story that is their own, whether it’s a reckoning, a turning away, or an awakening. Maizes has a knack for finding these moments and plunging the reader into these realities so that they come to life, with their own magic, light, and even despair.