A Cottonmouth with a Laptop: A review of Stay Gone Days by Steve Yarbrough

Reviewed by Peter Mladinic

Stay Gone Days
by Steve Yarbrough
Ig Publishing
April 26, 2022, Paperback, 380 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1632461353

Towards the end of Steve Yarbrough’s Stay Gone Days, Ella Summers pulls from folds of her roller suitcase in her room at a Quality Inn a fifth of Four Roses, a blended whiskey. Ella opens the bottle, pours shots into plastic cups for herself and her sister Caroline and they drink a toast in that room in Loring, Mississippi, “to who we are and who we never were.”  Some forty years ago, in Jackson, not far Loring, a similar bottle of Four Roses was opened. It’s a significant detail in this story of the Cole sisters, that ends where it began, that comes full circle, with many detours along the way. Individuals, with marked differences, both sisters are resilient, vulnerable, and passionate, characters so life-like a reader feels “the air making contact with their skin.”

This story not of one but of two is told in third person. It spans a period a little over forty years.  At one point, when Ella is a young woman, a student at the Berklee College of Music, in Boston, she is with an instructor who tells her she lacks passion. In his apartment he plies Ella with alcohol,  takes her into his bedroom, and proceeds to teach her “what passion isn’t.”  That’s not Ella’s first encounter with such a male, the first left her naked and shivering in a broom closet in a motel in Jackson. But passion is in Ella’s nature. She is passionate about her husband Martin, and their daughters Hayley and Lexa.  Her gift for music never comes to fruition, but she is passionate in her living.  While attending Berklee she waits tables in a restaurant and strikes up a casual friendship with the writer Richard Yates, who gifts Ella an inscribed copy of his story collection Liars in Love, which Caroline comes across years later in Ella’s home, north of Boston. Caroline, a writer herself, with “a license to lie,” is passionate about lying her way to the truth. Ironically, as a girl her lies get her in trouble;  at one point she is banned from the public library in Loring. As a woman, who has published a book of stories and a novel, her lies win her acclaim. That novel comes only after an attempt at one she starts and then destroys, in the realization that what is in it is not passionate; she wasn’t lying her way to the truth, wasn’t “making the air contact with the characters’ skin.”  But then she did, with her drive, her passion. It’s no coincidence that Yarbrough’s first book of stories is The Oxygen Man and Karo Kohl’s is The Propane Man. And Karo, like her creator, is the author of Stay Gone Days.

Four Roses is significant, so is propane. Both have to do with vulnerability. The Cole sisters, who they are is revealed by who they are with. Kim Taggart, with Ella, breaks out a fifth of Four Roses in her bedroom, and then in the motel room in Jackson.  Alton Cole, a husband and father, shows an affection to his older daughter Ella, and whips Caroline, his younger daughter, the bad sister, for reading a book he doesn’t want her reading. Caroline feels unloved by her father, feels his animosity. He repairs radios and tv’s on weekends, and that’s what he wants to do, but what he must do is drive a propane truck. Similarly, he must be with his wife, June, but wants to be with Grace Pace; he wants to be Ella’s father, he must be Caroline’s.  The four of them live in a cramped farmhouse with four thin walls, where Caroline feels trapped with her unloving father. Ultimately she escapes from that house, that town, just as Ella escapes from the motel room in Jackson, into which Kim, Ella’s so called friend, has invited Brad Moss, who would have forced himself on Ella had she not gotten out of there quickly. The vulnerability of both sisters is revealed by the characters near them. One male, perhaps, no, definitely, more menacing than Alton Cole, is Tom, whom Caroline meets at a Chevron station in Barstow, California. 

Just as Tom reveals Caroline’s vulnerability, he also reveals her resilience. She is a liar, he is a pathological liar, a criminal (stealing much more than a library book), and a murderer. (One must ask, were Tom never in Caro’s life would she have become a novelist?) He’s a bad man, but never dull. That Caro gets away from Tom and gets beyond him reveals her resilience.  He is as evil as Julio good, and, later on,  Alastair.  Similarly, Ella’s resilience is revealed in her friendship with Liz and her marriage to Martin. Early on in this novel the word hospice appears in relation to Ella, who, some three years after Martin’s death, has stage IV cancer.  Like her sister she is a survivor. Unlike Caroline, Ella doesn’t pick up and run from a psychotic criminal, but she deals with the fact that she is not as musically talented as others at Berklee, she deals with being alone and in financial straits in a big city far from home, she deals with making for herself a new home, a new life. She doesn’t sing as well as Maeve, Martin’s talented sister, but she lives well. In Ella’s old life she has the false friend Kim, in her new life she has the true friend, Liz. And her two daughters and her sister.

At the end, the Cole sisters are back in Loring, downtown on a sidewalk when Irwin, a character from Ella’s youth, steps of a hardware store. He’d tried to kiss her in a parked car on a turnrow one night.  She adamantly refused his advances, and he profusely apologized.  Now he sees the sisters Cole hand in hand, but doesn’t recognize them, and thinks that kind of thing just isn’t done here. Their story is one of love and redemption. 

About the reviewer: Peter Mladinic’s poems have recently appeared in Divot, Mad Swirl, Bluepepper, Off Course and other literary journals. An animal rights advocate, he lives in Hobbs, New Mexico, USA.