By Charles Rammelkamp
Meg Pokrass’s flash fictions are like puzzles whose pieces you have to consider individually and together, to see how it all fits, twisting the kaleidoscope to consider the patterns. Often humorous, witty, they nevertheless touch on a sadness at the heart of the human experience. But if the fictions are often searing with a sort of alienation, estrangement, loneliness, they nevertheless also hint at joy. Indeed, the epigraph to this new collection, is an apt quotation from the great Russian writer Anton Chekhov: “Even in Siberia there is happiness.”
Pokrass’ writing is always fresh with insight and image. Sentence by sentence you can never be sure where she might take you next. Take this observation from the story, “Spider”: “We humans and insects are all in the same boat, hoping for food, praying for love.” As in so many of her stories in this collection, the female protagonist of this story has fallen out of love with her husband, though she remembers how he used to make her feel safe and implicitly misses that warmth of human connection.
Or take the story, “Cured.” It begins: “He tasted like a bologna sandwich.” How can you not read on to see what that means? We learn that the man has lost his wife, is saturated with grief. “Grief was not angular, it was soft, droopy wet.” The protagonist of the story, a woman whom we understand is likewise on the rebound, wants to comfort him, with her sex, yes, but not only. Yet the task just seems too elusive, in the end. So many of the women in these stories go on dates with guys they meet at internet dating sites, almost always with sad results. “For months she’d ignore the stabbing feeling of her recent divorce,” she writes in “Hi, Hi, Hi,” a story about a futile email relationship that’s a reaction to the protagonist’s situation.
As the title of the collection might suggest, dogs have a metaphorical potency in these stories. Indeed, all pets do; rescue animals in particular are a sort of metaphor for the discarded partners who populate the stories. Nowhere is this more stark than in the story, “The Bite,” which begins, “You didn’t know he had escaped. You thought he was a terrific dog, smitten with you….” It becomes clear (sort of) that this stray is actually a man. (First hint is when he follows her: “If he could talk, he may have said something about the ‘view’ (meaning your ass).”) He has a wife (“his owner”) who goes ballistic when she discovers the affair. The woman “…screamed at you, growled a death cry that would stop chopped ice. Told you that you were ruining her life.”
A similar confusion between human and canine is found in “What the Dog Thinks.” The story starts: “Today she seemed to be chasing her tail. I mean, chasing herself into a bad mood. At 11AM she was wearing her astral nightgown and her Jupiter slippers.” What appears to the reader as a dog at first crystallizes into a human being, like a photograph in a developer tray. Later in the story, the protagonist reflects, “I’m tired of being a wife. It’s not a job I’m good at.”
Dogs are mentioned in about eighteen of these stories (cats in about 7; a blue-tongued skink, otters and parakeets, too), including a labradoodle in “In the Middle of Nowhere.” (“Sometimes she wanted to run away from her husband, but she could not live without their labradoodle, Timmy.”) In “New Dog,” the protagonist reflects on the replacement dog a man she recognizes is walking in the park; the old one has recently died. It’s not as gentle as the original dog, but “She believes that one must dispose of the past. That dogs are similar to ex-husbands. Moving on is critical.” Recently divorced, it becomes apparent that the woman is coping. “”She’s learning how to be thankful rather than grateful.”
In the eponymous story, another marriage has fallen apart, but as in many of the stories, the protagonist has not actually been able to “dispose of the past.” Indeed, she finds herself with “the man who used to want me but is now my friend.” They are sharing a salad. “He is seeing a much younger woman now, so I talk to the dog seated next to me.”
Not surprisingly, several of the women at the center of these little stories are in therapy. In the story, “Margaret Thatcher,” “You talk to your therapist about all the guys you’ve loved. You charm her, a weekly comedy act.” Grief as performance art. In the story “Prescription,” indeed, a dog figures into the therapist plot! It begins, “The last appointment, my doctor popped the question – asked me to pet-sit and house-sit for him while he traveled to Florence.” The doctor has an arthritic dog named Jeeves. The protagonist cares for the doctor’s garden while he is away. The story ends: “Jeeves waddles out and plunks next to me to sit in the sun.”
There’s so much unspoken emotion in Meg Pokrass’s fiction. It makes talking about her work difficult because you feel like you’re missing so much in the analysis and description. Joy? The joy is in the writing itself! You have to read her book to see what I mean! And you’ll be so grateful that you did! And thankful!
You can find the book here: https://www.spdbooks.org/Products/9781949790238/the-dog-seated-next-to-me.aspx
Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was recently published by Future Cycle Press. An e-chapbook has also recently been published online Time Is on My Side (yes it is) –http://poetscoop.org/manuscrip/Time%20Is%20on%20My%20Side%20FREE.pdf