The first story in “You Will Never Be Forgotten,” Mary South’s debut collection, occurs in the future. In “Keith Prime,” “Crystals, Keiths, Stephanies, et cetera” are created and kept comatose in Fulfillment Centers. Eventually, their organs will be harvested.

Sensing one humanoid’s awakening consciousness, a widowed nurse wonders, “Did I rouse him through the force of my will?”

Though unusual to do so, her supervisors allow her to take him home, where he grows emotionally attached to her. Finally, she and “Keith” re-enact the somber moment of her husband’s death. In addition to other body parts harvested at the center, “there should be an organ that collects sorrow,” she thinks.

South’s inventive stories are funny and sad. “The Age of Love” takes place in a convalescent home, where “each wing was named after a different kind of squash.” At night, male nurses listen in on old men’s calls to phone sex hotlines, until an “incontinent Casanova” in the Butternut Wing at the home turns the tables on them.

Most of the 10 stories follow a pattern. An irreverent narrator jokes about humanoids or about goings-on in the Butternut Wing. Complications arise. Then, finally, the heartbreaking end to the story.

In the odd, beautiful “The Promised Hostel,” the generous Maddy suckles grown men at a Turkish resort. Among those she nurses are “a bipolar orthopedic podiatrist” and “a stuttering speech pathologist.” The eight men never question why she does this until a woman, newly arrived, elicits from her the tragedy of Maddy’s past.

An organ that collects sorrow would have eased Maddy’s great loss. It would help the rape victim in the title story, the magazine writer in “Architecture for Monsters” and the brain surgeon in “Frequently Asked Questions About Your Craniotomy,” who exults “I am alive” after her many struggles.

A less appealing story, “Camp Jabberwocky for Recovering Internet Trolls,” goes on too long. (I should also add that South’s hip narrators are sometimes overly interested in sex and bodily functions.)

The Jabberwocky piece provides a bridge from the earlier stories to “Realtor to the Damned” and “Not Setsuko.” These ethereal stories further consider what might have been in a life. In “Realtor,” a man and his wife laugh at the odds and ends they discover in homes they will market. After his wife’s death, the forlorn Realtor, haunted now, receives calls from her cell number. The splendid “Not Setsuko,” about a girl who must die at age 9, is equally touching.

Ghosts of loss and sorrow appear in almost every story. “What could be more ghostly,” asks the Realtor, bothered by his wife’s memory, “than missing someone so intensely that you can no longer remember her as she was?”

 

Short-story writer Anthony Bukoski is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Superior, Wis.

You Will Never Be Forgotten
By: Mary South.
Publisher: FSG Originals, 256 pages, $15.