Surrounded by bright flowers, a large egg with a trusting face stares from the dust jacket of this wonderfully strange, often humorous short-story collection. The woman carrying the egg through gestation holds up her hands, palms outward, as though resisting love or forestalling birth. The image suggests that events to come might unsettle or threaten Ramona Ausubel's characters and the reader.
Curiously, the tension in the stories comes from the possibility of not loving enough. In Ausubel's world, love is painful; for inevitably the loved one will die, be born unhealthy or disappoint the lover. On the other hand, the alternative to a loving world is a barren, artificial one.
In "Safe Passage," Alice has learned all this about love. Now adrift on a cargo ship, she and dozens of other grandmothers "do not know how they got" to sea. One grandmother says, "Tell me what I was like when I was a baby." Others amuse themselves by opening cargo containers; one is filled with padded toilet seats, another with "child size wooden baseball bats." Lowering herself over the side to escape, Alice finally becomes born again into life by swimming away. To comfort herself, she wonders aloud, "Will both of my husbands be mine again? … Can I love them again now?"
In "Poppyseed," a couple adore their invalid child so much that they taste something — a biohazard — removed from her body during surgery. They feel that sharing the daughter's suffering will strengthen the family.
The need to love, the necessity for love, appears in other of these odd, touching stories. In "Chest of Drawers," a man with sympathetic pains for his pregnant wife discovers a dresser with six drawers growing from his body. In "Welcome to Your Life and Congratulations," a girl finds her parents "naked and stacked" making love in the bedroom. "This here," the mother says, "is what made you. You don't even exist without this." Seeking reassurance that she belongs to the family, the girl dumps the cremated ashes of another family member, Houdini the cat, over the loving parents. "Houdini fills us up, binds us all together," she thinks.
In the delightful "Saver," the youthful Booker and Mabel, in love only a few minutes, pretend to be cactuses with "small birds that make homes in our bodies."
Desperate to merge with someone or something beyond themselves, these characters act in startling ways. They disregard advice about what or what not to do in life. They know that by caring for another and being cared for in return, they can glimpse the divine. "You can't believe how many stars there are above us, just millions," Booker says to Mabel when they fall in love.
Anthony Bukoski, a short-story writer, lives in Superior, Wis.