Reviewed by Charles Rammelkamp
Just Outside the Tunnel of Love:
Blue Light Press
Oct 2022, $15.95, 84 pages, ISBN: 978-1421835273
There are no happy stories in Francine Witte’s flash fiction. Thank goodness! There’s heartbreak and humor, magic and flawed humanity, disappointment and longing, charming wordplay and breathtaking literary craft, but no happy endings. Cheating husbands and boyfriends abound, as do unreliable fathers, disappointed girlfriends and deceived women stretching all the way back to Eve. Literally.
In “Eve to Me,” the narrator runs into Garden-of-Eden Eve (“fig leaf and no makeup”) at a self-checkout station in a CVS. “I’m trying new things since I found my husband’s second phone in the bottom of his gym bag,” the narrator confides. She buying cosmetics to make herself more attractive to some unspecific male. Eve, meanwhile, is confused by the technology, strikes up a conversation with the narrator. They talk about their men; Adam is no picnic either. A disgruntled woman is slamming the scanning machine for being unresponsive, and when a security guard escorts her out of the store and tells her never to come back again, Eve has a flashback to being kicked out of Eden and decides to leave. “Good luck with your husband,” she says. Feeling unattractive, the narrator scans her purchases, knowing how futile the lipstick and eyeliner are, “standing in a line of women all through history who felt invisible. A line that stretches all the way from Eve to me.”
This magical realism is evident throughout the collection. In “Clean Magic” a woman pays a man five dollars for a magic rock. She’s been unlucky in love. (“The last man I had was married, three children, left me clanging at his door.”) The rock turns her in a gorgeous siren, and she winds up exacting revenge on a man by removing his legs. Poof! Turns out the rock’s spirit is likewise trapped but can’t free herself. It “has to pass in its own measured way, like time and dying and love.”
In “The Ice Cream Daughter” a girl turns her ancient husband into ice cream, eats him every night for dessert. In “”Mom’s Pumpkin Boyfriend” a woman replaces her shitty marriage with a jack-o-lantern. Unlike her wayward husband, her succession of pumpkin boyfriends “tend to stay put.” In “Potato Saga” a lady “falls in love with a potato.” She woos the tuber in a negligee and sexy perfume, but the potato leaves her anyway, rolling out of the kitchen window, only to ultimately wind up in the lady’s soup. In “One Day, Lucy Cannot Find Her Head” a woman removes her head while she is baking cookies – it only gets in the way, the voices of her parents cautioning: “Men don’t like smart women, her mother had warned. Men only want your body, her father had warned.” But the result is less than ideal. Witte also provides the perspective of a martini, as well as the bartender and an ugly man who is jilted by his Tinder date, in “A Martini Walks Into a Bar.” (“The martini is the color of dude, pull yourself together.”)
Underlying all this magic and the comedy with which it’s delivered is the human heartbreak of love gone wrong. Nowhere does Witte make this theme more poignant than in her stories of the feckless Daddy figure disappointing his wife and children over and over and over again (“I Watch Daddy Tape Measure the Couch,” “Daddy Sits Us All at the Table,” “Split, “Thin Mints,” “It Doesn’t Rain Here Anymore,” “All the Electric Things,” “Ten Winters,” “Tortellini Jones,” “Different”). In “Meta” a girl asks her mother if she favors her or her father – who skipped out long ago. “You look like a heartache,” is Mom’s reply, and later, when she gives her daughter her telephone number in case of emergencies, “Your father’s death, she said, is not an emergency.”
“Another Take on the Story” is a flash fiction riff on Ernest Hemingway’s famous six-word story: For sale: baby shoes, never worn. Here, flash almost becomes novelistic in expanding the implications and possibilities of Hemingway’s image.
But wait! There are a few happy endings! In “Owen Will Tell You” a hapless guy who likes to explain that his name begins with a zero and not the letter O applies for a job – his thirtieth interview in a month. Nobody wants him. But he is interviewed by a woman named Sally, who spells her name with a dollar sign instead of an S – $ally. “Her mother was a prostitute, her father a ten-dollar trick.” She tells Owen (0wen) it’s nearly ruined her life.
When Owen hears this, he goes instantly squishy with love. Sally hires him on the spot, both for the job and as her husband.
Years from now, their children will have no name issues. And if Owen has anything to say about it, they won’t even have any names.
There is so much to admire about Francine Witte’s writing. Her stories are fresh and innovative. “Hashtags and Handles,” for instance, tells the heart-wrenching tale of a mother abandoning her babies, in a series of # and @ phrases, like you see in Facebook. Witte’s wordplay is likewise charming and wise, as in “Cab Ride” when, watching the meter numbers twisting and ticking, the narrator observes, “it doesn’t matter because numbers are a made-up thing, like love.” Or in “Leftover Boys” in which the narrator tells us about Tommy and Bobby in their Def Leppard T-shirts and gelled-up hair, “They were like the fruits our mothers taught us to put back. Apples with bruises, berries gone squish.” Just Outside the Tunnel of Love is a pure delight to read, even as the tales so often give us that vicarious sense of sadness.
About the reviewer: Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for BrickHouse Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. His latest book, Mortal Coil, was published by Clare Songbirds Publishing, and his book, A Magician Among the Spirits was released by Blue Light Press in late 2022.