In “Don’t Tell Your Mother,” the first of 16 stories in Beth Mayer’s “We Will Tell You Otherwise,” a 10-year-old boy and his physician father join a party of smelters on the Chicago lakefront. The doctor thinks the fishermen are good folks “who came to the lake to catch their dinner.” Soon, however, a member of the party stabs a smelter named Georgie-Pie, whereupon a third smelt fisherman, a man “who looked like a woman,” crouches over him, crying, “Darling, Darling.” Everything happens fast.
Like many of these stories, “Don’t Tell Your Mother” is fairly short at six pages. Some of Mayer’s fictions are shorter, their effectiveness deriving partly from their brevity. I think Mayer’s less successful stories are two longer ones.
“Some Good News to Tell,” another harrowing piece, begins one morning when an attendant opens a laundromat. Fortified with coffee, “her back pillow, and her egg salad sandwich,” she frets about the flickering light over the washing machines in back. “Regular customers avoided those machines because you couldn’t always tell your whites from your lights, and you might end up with dingy tube socks.” When a near tragedy occurs at the Clothes Depot, the day changes for Margie the attendant, for the well-meaning customer in galoshes and for the “wrinkled looking girl,” whose 2-year-old, moments before, lifted “his mother’s brassieres onto the gritty floor” with a turkey baster.
Mayer, who teaches English at Century College in White Bear Lake, doesn’t condescend to her characters, not to the smelters, not to the galoshes woman “who always came with her own bottle of All.” While acknowledging their limitations, the author recognizes their inherent worth, an appealing feature of the stories. Also appealing are Mayer’s sense of humor, eye for detail and characters ranging from the headstrong wife of “the owner-operator of a funeral home” to a 3M chemist to Kenny, the idler in “Tell the Swede I’m Game.”
“When the Saints Tell Their Own” describes a teenager’s charitable deeds. However naive her attempts to become a “Bride of Christ,” one final, heartfelt gesture reflects her growing faith.
Many delights are found in this debut collection, winner of the Hudson Prize from Black Lawrence Press. In “Walter Bombardier Tells a Big Fat Lie,” Mayer momentarily switches from omniscient to second-person point of view to let a rare-book collector address his unscrupulous dealer. (“Oh, Delaney, Delaney.”) Even a minor rhetorical strategy such as this reflects her knowledge of her craft.
The two longer stories I’ve mentioned hold less interest for me. One is a domestic piece set on Christmas Eve, another the tale of youthful rebel Cha Cha McGee. The stories seem dated, as though told too often. But the shorter stories, now they are something.
Short-story writer Anthony Bukoski is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Superior, Wis.
We Will Tell You Otherwise
By: Beth Mayer.
Publisher: Black Lawrence Press, 140 pages, $18.95.
Event: 7 p.m. Sept. 7, Open Book, 1011 Washington Av. S., Mpls.