January 5 means we’re reading Carmine by John Wentworth Chapin.
“Pinks and oranges plume outward in a gaudy riot, each burgandy- or lavender-scented petal evoking Mardi Gras or day-glo psychedelia… Charles tells the woman behind the counter that he wants the pink and orange flower, and she nods, carefully boxing it for him.”
This is a more traditional opening that pulls us in with physical description. It turns out (as it should) that the manner of the description is at least as important as the description itself. Charles is prone to an exaggerated perspective. Would you have guessed that the flower described above is actually a cupcake? Or that the reason he’s ordering this cupcake is to impress the girl behind the counter? That’s the key to this story, I think, that what we focus on is never really what’s vital to understanding context. The story encourages us to absorb what is not written down, and to build Charles’ world from inference. I love to be involved in story in this manner, and this opening promises that I’m in for a compelling experience. Why? you ask.
Charlie’s about to undo. He’s a character used to controlling his environment (the phone call with his mother is priceless evidence of this), who sees life as a series of achievements (his obsession with anniversaries evokes that thought). This sets us up for a story about a guy who becomes frustrated about his life and changes, or refuses to change. And I’m fine with that.
Then Mr. Chapin goes and ups the ante on me. We discover that Charles has every reason to mark anniversaries and to cherish life and to focus on goals. He should not be alive. In fact he wonders at one point if he really is. I’m not generally a fan of flashback in short stories, but the short one here is essential. Not only is it a quirky little tale of luck (mixed with the potential for subconscious death wish), but it reveals the stress that Charles has been waging war against for some time now. But for the grace of God, Charles should be dead like the three people he witnessed die. But for the grace of God, he should be crippled, traumatized… gone.
And this really bothers Charles on so many levels. He doesn’t believe in God, or miracles, or even luck. By all rights he should be dead, but he’s not. Is he? This is one reason he tries so hard to impress a counter clerk, and one reason he sees the world as such a magical place. He’s trying to hold on to his skeptical core, but the experience has to leak out of him somehow. Thus, does he see the world in extravagant metaphor, celebrate every anniversary, beg to be noticed by everyone he encounters.
An unreliable narrator, but very different from yesterday. I think that Charles has a lot of hard lessons ahead of him. I’m hoping he also finds redemption.
I’m looking forward to February 5. Are you?