Surface tension 

Walking the tightrope in Honeymoon and Other Stories

The 11 stories in Kevin Canty’s collection, Honeymoon and Other Stories, are about people walking on tightropes. On one side is the rational world in which people are good, industrious, disciplined, and upright and would never dream of eating too many sweets or entertain ugly, violent thoughts. On the other side of the wire is a world where colors meld, where arms and legs feel too long and loose on the body, where words and ideas overlap into peculiar, Dali-esque meanings we may not understand though they surface from our own minds.

In “Flipper” we meet the unfortunate11-year-old boy who, unlike his classmates spending their summer months tossing a Frisbee on the sands of the Jersey Shore or playing tag with neighborhood friends before dark, is being shipped off to an out-of-state fat camp. Before his parents even drop him off, Flipper is famished. He can feel the hole in his stomach spreading wider. It only takes a few days of regimented walks in the woods and lunches of cling peaches and cottage cheese for him to decide to run away. “Poor Flipper! They will picture this escape when he’s dead. They will see they were wrong. The emptiness inside him, the place where lunch ought to be and snacks, and the love of his mother, and softness, this empty place contracts and loosens around a burning core.” Heaving himself over the last fence, he finds himself in another world, another forbidden camp, this one inhabited by pregnant girls and “nuns like moving telephone booths, walking on invisible legs, keeping track. Guarding against pleasure or happiness.” He befriends one of the pregnant girls, who talks to him under the shade of a summer pine and who sneaks him candy bars—the mini, Halloween kind, small and creamy and dreamlike swaddled in colored foil and waxy wrappers. When his friendship ends abruptly and the week at fat camp draws to a close, Flipper finds himself hungrier than ever, though now that hollow feeling yearns for other kinds of nourishment.

In “Red Dress,” the young son tries to connect to his parents, the most effective way being to involve himself in his parents’ parties. Promoted from his original post as doorman, the boy manages to get his parents to agree to let him stay up and serve as bartender. This job allows him to be in the middle of the action, listening to conversations, observing behavior, being closer to his parents who seem to treat him like an invisible guest. At the party, he watches his mother in her sexy red dress as she swishes hostess-style, laughing her “brittle laugh,” drifting from one cluster of guests to another. “I didn’t want to be one of them,” he says. “I just wanted to know what made them so loud and excited, what they were hoping for.” Later, he catches his mother with his father’s college friend. She sees him see her like that: her face open, just kissed, the red flush of desire spread across her skin. The next day he finds himself nosing around in her closet. One moment he has on his boy clothes, the next his mother’s red dress. When he hears the car, he looks out the window only to be caught by his mother looking up at the window. He changes and waits for her up in his room. He waits, breathes, waits. She doesn’t come. “We never spoke about it—never spoke about that afternoon or Kendellan, never spoke openly to each other again. She was still my mother, I was still her son. But everything after that was in code, ambiguous, the silences full of unasked questions, the words empty of answers. And now I am grown, and my mother is dead, and my father is dead. And this is all the childhood I will ever have.”

“Carolina Beach” introduces us to a man who thinks he is falling for a woman whose time on earth is limited. She has late-stage breast cancer that has left her with giant scars across her chest and a litany of ongoing treatments that make her chronically tired and nauseated at the blandest of smells. They take a weekend trip to the beach and fumble through what could be considered the first steps of a courtship though the backdrop of a “50-50 chance” would pull at the progress of any romance like thick, uninvited fingers. She warns him, reminding him: “I didn’t ask for this. This just happened to me. But you—you’re walking into trouble with your eyes wide open. You could get hurt, Vincent.” He is careful and thoughtful. He is also human. When the time comes for them to consummate their relationship—a weekend away implying such consummation, after all—he feels frozen. “But this is what he asked her for. He was the one that asked. Vincent doesn’t know if he has the nerve to go through with this but he must act as if he knows…He sits on the edge of the bed, waiting. He lies down, experimentally, then sits back up again. He thinks about what her scars will look like, what they will feel like. He never once—give him this—he never wishes he had not come.”

Canty’s stories surprise. A story can take a 180-degree turn from one paragraph to the next. The snapshots of his characters’ lives are vivid and unusual and we gobble them up like fresh grapes. However, now and then, though a story has leaves us sated, it is not until a short while later that, looking back, we realize we are hungry again, wishing that the connection had been just that much deeper, that the worlds in which these people step were a little less orchestrated.

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