Fiction | Short Stories
Stephen F. Austin University Press
“My dad built a bomb shelter in our backyard the year I was born.”
So begins Jeff Fearnside’s debut collection, Making Love While Levitating Three Feet in the Air. For a collection ostensibly about flight, it is a potentially odd beginning, an introduction to a world underground and rooted, our feet firmly planted in familiar soil. For many of these characters, flight — in both the sense of becoming and that of fleeing — is the goal, the hope, the dream, but in the meantime they’re stuck in the muck and mire of their everyday lives. Exit strategies, when found, come at a price.
This is to say, these stories are anything but ethereal or wispy. Geographically we skip around, but from Cleveland to Idaho’s panhandle, we’re delivered to backdrops that promise big sky more than they provide it. Generational tension, heritage, and marriage are supposed to be waystations to bigger, better things, but ultimately become traps of their own making. “Every Living Thing That Moves,” for example, balances three eras of men on one Ohio farm. John, the teenage son, is used by his father Cal as the scapegoat for every setback, every failure. Cal is a gruff, overall-wearing good old boy who abuses his wife and son, and looming large as a ghost over them both is John’s grandfather, about whom little is known, but whose memory clearly haunts Cal.
“But this was really all his father’s land, inherited from his father, a man rarely spoken of around the Speck household; the family history John grew up with centered around Cal only. It was clear that he had paid for the land with his own sweat and blood for more years than John’s sixteen. […] He’d never said so, but John sensed it made him proud that he would pass on more to his only son than all that his father before him had ever owned.”
(from “Every Living Thing That Moves,” p. 10)
As John navigates his own family history, he confronts myths of masculinity, romance, and devotion. He collects arrowheads in the surrounding fields, often disappointed when the expected treasure crumbles “like old, brittle paper.” He is obsessed with the legend of a Native American princess and her star-crossed lover, allegedly murdered nearby centuries before. He sits in church and listens to a red-faced pastor pound the pulpit and spit poetic half-truths about sacrifice and devotion:
“Everything comes at a price, John thought. But is that what Jesus was really trying to say? This was Wood County, Ohio. Its cities and villages were named after people who had lived, fought, and died there, both Indian and White — Perrysburg, Haskins, Tontogany. John could see Shut-nok’s hill from his own house, the spot where her lover’s blood had spilled. He could understand that sacrifice, the reason for it. But Jerusalem was far away, and Akeldama sounded strange to his ears.”
Like John, many of these characters in Making Love While Levitating are trying to escape something more abstract than concrete. It’s the pat narrative of life they want to flee, the forces that will slowly wear you down and slow you to a stop. This is the central tension in the title story, where we follow Minnie, a stable, divorced single mother who has only ever approached her life like a problem to solve.
“Work wasn’t a burden, it was freeing; it had purchased her freedom from a bad marriage. After six months she had known it wouldn’t work with Leroy, but it took her seven years to divorce him — seven years of business school, earning her insurance license, and establishing a client base, all while raising Bryan. She had too many responsibilities — her son, herself, her company, her clients; she couldn’t allow herself to grow slack. So she hadn’t taken a vacation in two years. That was the price she paid to remain beholden to no one, to no man.”
(from “Making Love While Levitating Three Feet in the Air,” p. 88)
After Minnie falls for a man with his own issues around commitment and family, the couple pushes each other out of their respective comfort zones. That the story playfully reverses the central tension more than once keeps clichés regarding divorce and second chances at bay. “Making Love While Levitating Three Feet in the Air” is a standout story, perhaps the best in the collection.
Fearnside’s writing is strongest with his female characters. They push against type more strongly and assert their independence against expectations in interesting ways. A reoccurring character, Elly (“She Was a Winter” and “A Story of My Very Own”), has a wonderful voice that cuts through some of the more morose and somber interiority of the male characters. In “Stars,” a couple in crisis goes on a camping trip. Though we’re treated to the man’s perspective, I’m much more interested in the woman’s story. How we get from the free-wheeling hippy chick she was when she first met her husband to the finicky nervous-Nellie we see by the campfire is never fully explored, as the husband (and thus his point of view) is more occupied with his own loss, a decision not to pursue astronomy as a career. That he spends most of the story stargazing instead of looking at his wife is telling.
The premise of a “linked” collection also isn’t quite achieved. Several stories, such as “Little Murders” and “The Cat People,” delve into magical realism, and sprinkled as they are among stories of rural farmers and crumbling marriages, I was often taken by surprise. The surreal subject matter doesn’t feel as fully embodied or inhabited as the other stories. “Going for Broke,” a story about baseball in a Japanese internment camp, also felt outside the realm of the collection.
We end with “Wing Walking,” which is another standout piece and is a smart choice for a finale, hitting as it does the collection’s major thematic points. We’re treated to the fascinating and funny world of airport baggage workers, and Fearnside’s homey and vaguely ironic tone is perfect for this grounded, gritty setting. A young man known by his coworkers as the “Prof” due to his misguided college ambitions struggles to find his place among working-class lifers, his ears ringing with the blunt and disappointed voice of his “old man.” Prof doesn’t necessarily escape his middling circumstances by story’s end, but as he stands aloft on the wing of a powerful, transporting machine, it’s hard not to imagine that he might.
“There’s a power to them, and I kind of soak it up when I’m near them. It’s like I can see my heart out there on the ramp, so big and pulsing almost.”
The Prof’s boss, Griz, collects fallen zipper pulls from suitcases, offering cash prizes to whoever can bring him something new, colorful, beautiful. In many of the stories in Making Love While Levitating, there’s a heartbreaking beauty to the small ways people make their lives matter, imbue them with urgency, with importance. Though it may never truly come to pass, through imagination, sex, trampolines, or simply proximity to airplanes, flight for these folks always seems possible.