Woman, Running Late, In a Dress by Dallas Woodburn
Yellow Flag Press, 2018
178 pages / Yellow Flag
It’s confounding to have the ghost of your seven year old sister haunt your room, but all the more disconcerting when she quite suddenly stops appearing. Moreover, it can be a burden when the specter of your disapproving mother lingers around you, or when you’re preoccupied by memories of the best friend who went missing moments after you tried to kiss her (and after you ran away, rebuffed). Dallas Woodburn’s debut story collection, Woman, Running Late, In a Dress is consumed with those things we outgrow as kids, as adolescents, or well into our adult lives, as well as the many things that we never can quite escape, even—and perhaps especially—after we think we’ve left them in the rearview mirror. With links of geography—such as the dense San Francisco bay fog and the trappings of the purple leaves from jacaranda trees—and recurring characters, these stories never cease to surprise or carry a wave of emotional impact.
Woman opens with “Near-Death Experience,” a story of Sylvie, who has grown disillusioned with her marriage after a flirtation with death steers her husband, William, toward a new obsession with religion, complete with a holier than thou attitude. What’s left of their marriage is ripe with dissension culminating in a dinner William insists on Sylvie making spaghetti for. Sylvie responds by not making her family’s signature sauce, but rather opening a jar of Prego, and proceeding to proffer a bottle of wine to the crowd in front of which which her husband has so proudly patted himself on the back for quitting drinking. That it’s a white wine to go with the red sauce is a delightfully misfit detail to underscore Sylvie’s absence of care about the meal, and her emphasis, instead, on brandishing whatever alcohol she can lay her hands on as a dig at her spouse.
The collection doesn’t shy away from broken marriages and relationships in other stories, either. “Snow World” nicely captures a divorce from the perspective of the children caught between their parents. Katie tries to hold onto the magic of the holidays, going so far as to acknowledge she likes it colder because it feels more like Christmas. The kids have their fun at a holiday-themed amusement park, sledding through mud that was once snow, finding their fun amidst down-trodden surroundings that have, more objectively lost their luster. “Living Alone” captures life in the aftermath of not only a foregrounded breakup, but also a split between friends when the narrator‘s roommate abandons her to move on, marking a schism of a transition into adult life.
The collection is never a slave to classic story structure or literary convention. In “Slowly, Slowly, Without Much Noise”—a story that’s content risks growing too melodramatic for literary fiction—Woodburn deftly pivots, capturing a house-fire family catastrophe not from the perspective of the mother and wife who’s the only survivor, but rather the fire itself—young but omniscient, soon all-consuming. A linked story, “Jared Sampson’s Mom,” reveals a girl who loved the eponymous teenage boy who died in that fire, and who was connected to his mother, who later died in a car accident. The occasion of learning of her death offers a backdrop for another coming of age moment in her young life, as she concedes what has become increasingly obvious—that the long-distance boyfriend she met at her summer camp job has been cheating on her, and it’s time to break things off.
The most overtly speculative story of the collection, “Erik and Steffy,” concerns a boy haunted by the seven-year-old sister who passed away before he was born, and captures the fully imagined complexity of him outgrowing her. Though she was born years ahead of him, as he broaches teenage life, the still-seven-year-old girl who died of a head trauma is very much stuck in her seven-year-old’s understanding of the world, and becomes more an annoyance than a mentor or even playmate, just in time for her to disappear. This isn’t the only ghost story, however, as “Three Sundays at the Grove,” a startling meditation on diversity and the struggles of shifting between socioeconomic statuses captures not only the complications a college-aged couple experiences with one another, but all the more potently a young woman’s contentious relationship with her mother. After mom’s death, she sees her ghost in a lovely extended metaphor—hoping she’ll disappear after Deepti ceremonially disposes of her ashes. Instead, the mother leaves after Deepti eschews family tradition and eats meat for the first time, not lingering to see when her daughter gets violently ill for the dietary anomaly.
The collection peaks with “Hearts Like Lemons in Fists of Dew,” a masterclass in offbeat story structure that captures a woman, Michelle, returning to the home her parents are preparing to sell, while meditating in reverse chronological order on the events that caused her to leave forever—yes, her best friend shockingly went missing, but only after the friend articulated that she felt like they were being watched, and only after Michelle kissed her in a misread moment of sexual tension, and ran away when her advances had been rebuffed. It’s a story at the nexus of coming of age and multi-layered guilt that embodies the age old sentiment that “you can’t go home again” in novel ways, with the competing forward and backward progressions of the story complicating the narrative.
The book closes with its title story, which feels something like a thesis for the collection, as a woman fixates on a meddlesome riddle to—whether intentionally or not—distract from her struggling marriage and the ultimate death of her husband. The cutaways to trying to figure out the riddle at hand masterfully splice between collage-style fragments and the ultimate reveal that the narrator should have been looking inward, rather than out, for the answer to the riddle; it’s a near-perfect bow on not only this particular piece, but a deeply felt, introspective mass of stories.
This is a collection about not only the things people try to leave behind, but the things that might not be ready let them go. Woodburn writes in “Erik and Steffy”:
Erik always figured that if Steffy stopped visiting it would be because he initiated it—because he told her he needed space, or because he moved away and moved on with his life and had no more time for childish games and “Did you knows.” Even then, Erik always assumed he would still see Steffy occasionally—maybe she would drop by on his birthday every year, or she would visit when he came home for Christmas. They would be like normal grown-up siblings … laughing about old relatives and old memories that nobody else understands in quite the same way.
Erik doesn’t get the adult relationship he imagined, but then who among us really does?
Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and currently lives in Georgia with his wife and son. He has written three chapbooks: Autopsy and Everything After (forthcoming from Burrow Press), Distance Traveled from Bent Window Books, and The Leo Burke Finish from Gimmick Press. Additionally, his short work has been published with journals including The Normal School, Passages North, Barrelhouse, and Hobart. He works as a contributing editor for Moss. Find him online at miketchin.com or follow him on Twitter @miketchin.