In “The Current Occupant,” the first of eight short stories in Jacob M. Appel’s collection, “The Topless Widow of Herkimer Street,” a New York eye surgeon named Lewinter buys a modular house from a mail-order catalog. When he and his wife visit their “prefabricated paradise” in Hager’s Corner, Vt., a “summer refuge for their golden years,” Lewinter’s former sweetheart is living in the house, the result of a mix-up. If Lewinter could leave his cynical wife and take up with the free-spirited Kitty, whom he’s not seen in 42 years, he’d be emotionally fulfilled, he thinks. Though tempted to tell Kitty this, he feels his urge “evaporating in a sweat of snags and consequences.”
In “One Wish,” a veterinarian dreams of love. When he “stumble[s] upon a genie in an ordinary bottle,” the wistful vet realizes that with the genie’s help he can win his office assistant’s heart. But would this be fair to the assistant, Helena Joy, whose fiancé has recently drowned at sea?
In “Long Term,” an oncologist wonders what to do with the 61 iron lungs in a hospital basement, “mostly postwar Emerson models, but also duplex respirators from the 1930s.” His shady brother wants the “venerable machines” for one purpose, a rabbi for another. The oncologist considers opening “a Louvre of iron lungs,” then decides on a better use for the money they’ll bring on the collectibles market.
In each story, good begets good, or some good. In the first story, Kitty adjusts to things, and, by staying with his wife, Lewinter keeps his family intact. “Duplicity, even on a small scale, defied Lewinter’s nature.” However, for these well-meaning souls — the eye surgeon, the veterinarian — denying, or subsuming, their emotions also increases their loneliness. Their dilemmas are complex in the way life is complex.
In addition to being a writer, Appel is a physician, lawyer and medical bioethicist. Perhaps such training enables a person to see deeper into character and personality than most of us can see.
In the title story, an aging Ilene Marder-Marcus invites other women to sunbathe with her. Seeing their “bare, spent flesh” teaches her lawyer son a lesson about beauty and the impermanence of the human body. Such surprises enlighten Appel’s characters and illuminate their world for readers.
As facile and humorous as they are, not all of the stories succeed. “Rendezvous in Wikiternity” strikes me as a bit artificial. The anticlimactic final paragraph in “Toward Uncharted Waters” could have been rewritten to better effect.
Despite the missteps, if they are that, these are insightful stories from a patient, careful observer of human nature. Appel’s collection won the 2016 Howling Bird Press fiction competition sponsored by the MFA program in creative writing at Augsburg College in Minneapolis.
Writer Anthony Bukoski lives in Superior, Wis.