Last call: Stories

 
Last Call: Stories

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Behind the Stories

Although eleven of the twelve stories in Last Call were published in literary journals and magazines (see publication history below), and some even won awards, I continued to rethink the stories, often radically revising them after they were originally published.

 

In graduate school, I had become particularly fascinated by the form of linked stories, short story cycles, and novels-in-stories—books like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time, Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine, and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. I wanted my book to work in that rich, and I think underrated, tradition.

 

I searched for the thematic and character connections that would transform the book from a collection of marginally related stories into a cohesive whole in which the stories would maintain their integrity as individual pieces, but also, when read sequentially, have the narrative momentum and sense of resolution we expect from novels.

 

I added more stories, wrote, revised, and discarded many more. In one of the stories, “Penance,” the main character—Laura, a woman fleeing her fourth failed marriage—broods over the disappearance of her mother over thirty years ago. This image haunted me, and I wanted to explore the circumstances leading up to and immediately following this event and to track the emotional effect on Laura and her siblings (Gene, Rich, Gloria, and Manny), who appear in other stories in the book.

 

When I went back and wrote the Nature’s Way sequence of stories that opens the book, I saw how all my characters were part of three generations of the same family, how I could use the comedy, turmoil, and tragedy of their lives to examine the shifting boundaries of marriage, class, and culture, and how Laura’s emotional journey emerged as one of the central narratives of the book. 

 

~ K. L. Cook

 

Publication History of the Stories in Last Call

“Easter Weekend” in Post Road

“Nature’s Way” in Witness (“Animals in America” Issue)

“Gone” in Santa Fe Writers Project

“Texas Moon” in Denver Quarterly

“Last Call” in Puerto del Sol

“Knock Down, Drag Out” in Shenandoah

“Costa Rica” in The Threepenny Review

“Breaking Glass” (as “Mother Rejects Her Lover”) in The New Laurel Review

“Marty” in Colorado Review

“Pool Boy” in Writers’ Forum

“Penance” in American Short Fiction

~Winner of the Prarie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction~

K. L. Cook's debut collection of linked stories spans three generations in the life of one West Texas family. Events both tender and tragic lead to a strange and lovely vision of a world stitched together in tenuous ways as the characters struggle to make sense of their lives amid the shifting boundaries of marriage, family, class and culture.

 

A series of unusual incidents—a daughter's elopement, a sobering holiday trip, a vicious attack by the family dog, a lightning strike—provokes a mother of five to abandon her children. An oil rigger, inspired by sun-induced hallucinations, rescues his estranged wife, who doesn't appreciate his chivalry. In the wake of his father's and brother's deaths, a teenage boy finds a precarious solace working with his mother at a country-western bar. A cosmetics salesman schemes to buy Costa Rica and flirts dangerously with mobsters in Las Vegas. A woman, fleeing her fourth marriage, arrives at a complicated understanding of love and responsibility.

 

Railroad worker and conman, grieving son and battered wife—these characters explore the limits of family fragility and resilience. Their stories—suggesting unlikely connections between comedy and pathos, cruelty and generosity—promise a hard-won dignity and hope.

Praise for Last Call

“The stories in Last Call are about fractured families, lovers and losers (often one and the same), and coming of age the hard way. Cook writes with ease and naturalness and a wonderful, sorrowful knowledge of human foibles.”

~Jean Thompson, author of Who Do You Love, National Book Award finalist
 

“The stories in Last Call are so entertaining it seems almost unfair that they also resonate powerfully long after you’ve put down the book. K. L. Cook has whopping gifts, and this is a splendid book.”

~Robert Boswell, author of Century’s Son

Last Call is a terrific first book. K. L. Cook starts with the pungent inventory of country-western songs but lights it all, even his honky-tonks, fried food, downed trees, sick dogs and rain, with a new understanding of men and women. These are rich stories by an exciting new voice.”

~Ron Carlson, author of A Kind of Flying

Read More Reviews

Read Excerpts from Last Call

  • From "Easter Weekend"

  • From "Texas Moon"

  • From "Costa Rica"

March-April 1958

 

Saturday afternoon, Mr. Tate father took them all to see The Ten Commandments, a special event since they had never, as a family, been to an indoor movie theater before. Several times each summer, especially before Rich was born, they all went to the Charnelle Drive-in. Mr. Tate would park the truck with the bed facing the screen, and they’d sit on cushions in the back, Manny lying atop the cab, Gloria down front in the grassy area with her girlfriends or later in some beat-up jalopy with another girl and two pimply-faced boys. A sweaty jug of iced lemonade and a huge paper bag full of buttered popcorn (which they’d spent the afternoon popping at home) were wedged beside the wheel hump. Laura’s father would clamp the speakers to each side of the truck and turn the volume up high, even though it wasn’t necessary because the sound from the two hundred other speakers in the drive-in could easily be heard. But that was okay with Laura. She loved the effect, strange, almost dreamlike, of hearing the same private conversation being carried on simultaneously all around her while the film flickered on the monstrous, bug-spattered screen. It was both communal and intimate—the smell of food, the collective smacking and munching and swallowing, the stars twinkling overhead like a Hollywood effect. If the movie was boring, she would look around or head off to the bathroom. Sometimes she would spy couples kissing in cars and trucks, ponytails smashed against the windows, and other vehicles parked way in the back, windows fogged over, rocking slightly. It often seemed to her like permissible eavesdropping, a public display of secrets.

 

The Paladian Theater in Amarillo, however, possessed its own special exoticism. It had just opened its doors, and Mr. Tate wanted to see a movie there because he had supervised a portion of the construction the previous fall. They arrived a good half-hour before the film began, bought their tickets, and Mr. Tate spoke with the manager and then gave them all a tour of the theater, which seemed as thrillingly majestic as an English palace with its tall, red, crushed-velvet curtains, and the gold and black rococo curlicues on the facing of the balcony, and the screen towering impressively above them, protected and veiled rather than exposed, like the drive-in screen, to the elements and insects and beer-swigging vandalism of adolescent boys.

 

Dressed sharply in a white shirt, jeans, and boots, Mr. Tate spoke to and laughed with the manager like they were old friends, and then he strode about the empty theater like he owned it, pointing to the inlaid design of the balcony, explaining the joist work of the three pillars and steel-framed balcony support which he himself had welded, rattling off the cost of the seats and the curtains and the screen, which indicated (Laura couldn’t quite tell from her father’s tone) either magnanimous wealth or a waste of money. At his insistence, Manny, Gene, and Laura clambered up the carpeted, spiral stairs to the balcony and leaned over the ledge, waving down to Rich, who stood smiling like a munchkin before the massive screen.

 

They took their seats as other people filed in. Mr. Tate gave Manny and Laura three dollars and told them—in a clownish, mock-hick voice that made everybody laugh—to “oversee the movie vittles.” They bought lemonade for their parents, Velma, and Rich, and root beer for themselves and Gene, a brick of Hershey’s chocolate for everybody to share, as well as two big bags of popcorn scooped from the reservoir of orange-yellow fluff.

 

The glass-covered light bulbs dimmed. The red curtain parted as the music from the first short, a Disney cartoon, trumpeted. Unlike the drive-in, the sound was not loud, but it was clear, the picture sharp, brighter without the crackles and lines and burn holes she had learned to ignore on the outdoor screen.

 

A trailer for a black and white John Wayne western and then a newsreel, and then the movie itself. Laura hadn’t quite known what to expect—a Technicolor sermon?—but soon she was enthralled by the grand panoramic majesty of it all. It made her want to read the Bible. Who knew it was that romantic, that dramatic?

 

When they had arrived in early afternoon it had been hot and cloudless, but when they emerged from the theater over four hours later, the sun had slipped beneath the horizon. The sidewalk and grass glistened with rain, the sky milky purple, as swollen and variegated as a two-day bruise. Laura felt disoriented. It was like falling asleep in the middle of the afternoon and waking in the night, not sure what had happened or even what day it was. Time seemed to evaporate or be kidnapped. She didn’t know if she liked this feeling—thick, narcotic, as palpable as an overripe melon.

 

Aunt Velma loved the movie, though she thought it a little racy for kids. Rich had fallen asleep. Manny loved the fights and the special effects, and Gene’s favorite part was when Moses seemed to be walking around in a burning bush-induced glaze, his face red, his hair suddenly white. Mr. Tate thought it was way too long and had twice stepped outside to smoke a cigarette. Mrs. Tate liked the Exodus—the joy on all those people’s faces when they finally left Egypt.

 

“What did you think, Laura?” Aunt Velma asked.

 

“I loved it.”

 

“And your favorite part?”

 

“All of it,” she said, but felt her answer disappointed everyone. They had given specifics, but she still felt too stunned by the experience to talk about it.

 

***

 

Easter Sunday. They rose before dawn and went to the sunrise service at Aunt Velma’s church, where the preacher recounted the old familiar story of the Crucifixion, the days of darkness, the stone mysteriously moved from the tomb, Jesus appearing to the women who loved Him and then later to His disciples, who needed testing, a hand in the holes of His body, and the final glorious ascension, hallelujah, hallelujah, amen.

 

Laura listened absently. She’d heard this story many times, and while on Friday, during Aunt Velma’s dinner blessing, it had seemed vividly alive, it now had lost its power to hold her attention. It seemed, in fact, hackneyed compared to the movie they’d watched yesterday. She bent her head, as if in prayer, closed her eyes and tried to unfurl the movie in her mind. The most distinct images weren’t the ones she would have thought—the Red Sea parting, Pharaoh’s army stopped by the pillar of fire. She saw, instead, the more intimate moments. The princess playing that crazy game, called Hounds and Jackals, with the Pharaoh. (It stunned her to think of Biblical figures playing board games.) The gold dress “spun from the beards of shellfish.” Moses in chains in the dungeon, the princess prostrate before him. The dark shine of his sweaty body, half-naked and caked in mud, in the immaculate throne room before his father, who turned away from him, who forbade the name of Moses to be mentioned again. Yul Brynner with that black snake of hair coiled exotically out of the side of his bald head.

 

Everyone suddenly stood and shuffled the hymnals. She opened her eyes and stood up, too, out of habit, and pretended to sing, “He arose, He arose, He arose,” while a bright flicker of shame goosed over her because she’d been thinking about the movie, particularly Moses’ sweat-glistened chest, instead of being thankful for Jesus dying to take away her sins.

 

~top~

1978

 

The band had just begun the Cotton-Eyed Joe, and I could see from under the table the legs of the dancers like spokes of a wheel stomping around on the dance floor, everybody chanting,

 

One, two, three. BULL-SHIT!

 

What’d you say? BULL-SHIT!

 

I had never seen the Cotton-Eyed Joe from this angle. It was quite a sight. All the skirts swirling, legs rubbing against each other to the whine of the fiddle. About that time two big boots and a pair of denim jeans appeared at the table. I could tell without a word spoken that it was Rich, my brother.

 

“Did you lose your keys again or are you out of chewing tobacco?”

 

It was an embarrassing situation, me under the table in the sawdust at The Texas Moon. I was trying to hide from Angie, my wife, who I’d glimpsed just moments earlier. Trapped in the corner of the bar, there was no place for me to go but under.

 

Rich stuck his head down to get a better look. A white skirt fluttered between his bowed legs. He’d already had a few drinks, I could tell. His blonde beard looked too curly, like a girl had fingered it, and his eyes were glassy.

 

“I’ve got some Red Man, Gene. You don’t have to chew sawdust.” He pulled the pouch from his pocket and offered it to me. He loved to rile me. I scooped up a small handful of sawdust and poured it in his open pouch.

 

That silly bastard mixed it up with his index finger, pinched off a big wad and stuck it in the front of his lip. He didn’t even flinch, just kept playing along, like it was the sweetest-tasting thing he had ever sucked on. It must have been a pretty ridiculous sight, us carrying on a conversation, me under the table, him chewing sawdust, his butt facing the dance floor.

 

Rich was semi-crazy, that was for sure. And the luckiest man I ever knew. When he was twenty, he bought himself a ‘76 red Nova with two bright purple stripes down the hood. The second day he had it his brakes locked as we raced down Adirondack Street, and he plowed right into a huge sycamore tree. I jumped out of my Skylark, thinking he was dead for sure, but when the firemen wedged the door open, Rich crawled out with only a few scratches on his arm. He’d get into a fight every other week or so, come home bloody, but never disfigured. He’d had pool cues busted over his head, bats cracked across his kneecaps, beer bottles practically shoved down his throat. He claimed he’d even been swimming with sharks when he rigged off-shore. He had come through it all laughing like the blessed idiot he was. Eating sawdust wasn’t any big deal.

 

“You care to have any, Gene?” He held the pouch out to me, grinning. “It sure is tasty.”

 

“I’ll pass, thank you.”

 

“Suit yourself. By the way, Angie’s here,” he said. “She’s over by the pool tables with Shelly Denison. She looks mighty good.”

 

I got out from under the table. The Texas Moon used to be a roller skating rink back when Rich and I were growing up, but it had been converted into a country and western club a few years back, so now there was a large dance floor where the rink used to be, three bars, a stage big enough for a six-piece band, pool tables in one corner and in the other a mechanical bull on which I had seen just a few months earlier a man break his neck. Rich and I had been coming here more often since our sister, Gloria, and her son, Travis, started working here. Gloria’s husband and oldest son had died in a car accident earlier in the year, and while they waited for the lawyers to bicker over the insurance settlement, they had been working—her as a waitress, he as an under-aged helper for the bartenders. I felt bad for them, and visited them whenever I could. Since they’d been working here, they both seemed in better spirits. It was that kind of place. The good band music, the lively crowds, the dancing, and the silliness of the mechanical bull could cheer you up.

 

Across the dance floor, Angie leaned over the green felt on the center pool table, a cue stick in her hand, studying her shot. She looked wonderful, wearing the blue cotton captain’s shirt I’d bought her last summer at South Padre Island, her thick black hair done up in a French braid, the way I liked it. It’s a strange thing to see a woman you love and have lived with after not seeing her for four months. It makes you wonder, for one thing, what the hell you are doing piddling around on the floor of The Texas Moon.

 

We had been separated for about six months, the longest we’d ever been apart. I hadn’t seen her at all in four months because we hadn’t broken up on the best of terms, and she said she was going to file for divorce this time. I felt sure she was bluffing. We’d always been together and, except for a few intervals, I was sure we always would be. At the moment, though, I had about ten good reasons for not wanting to see her, the most important of which was that I owed her money.

 

“Does she know I’m here?” I asked Rich.

 

“She didn’t ask.”

 

“ Did you volunteer the information?”

 

“She ain’t dumb, Gene.”

 

“You son of a bitch.”

 

“What the hell are you so scared of?” he asked.

 

“It’s not a matter of being scared.” He was awfully stupid sometimes. He’d never been married himself, though he’d been dating a girl named Babs for about a year, and there were things I couldn’t seem to explain to him. “She doesn’t want to see me, does she?” I asked.

 

“I’m not one to tell you what you can and cannot do. I gotta get back to the pool table. I have a game coming up.”

 

“Go on then,” I said.

 

“Could you loan me a twenty?” he asked, but changed his request when he saw my face. “Ten? I lost some money to a little Mexican runt, and I want a chance to win it back.”

 

I had just been paid, so I had a little more than a hundred with me. I handed Rich a twenty. “I’m going home,” I said.

 

“You can’t hide from her forever,” he called over his shoulder from the middle of the dance floor. He didn’t even wait for an answer, just laughed and walked toward the pool tables, sawdust bulging in his lower lip. Crazy bastard.

 

~top~

1970-71

 

In 1970, my father quits selling carpet and goes into business for himself. He and my mother and his parents get in on the ground level of a cosmetics firm. They sell lipstick, aloe vera, eyeliner, face powder, blush, fingernail polish, fingernail polish remover, the works. My mother is pretty, blonde, a model, so that helps selling. They travel around Texas and Oklahoma in a car and give speeches in bank lobbies and restaurant banquet rooms and sell cosmetics out of briefcases. Though only six, I preach the powers of positive thinking. People love me. I’m a star on the cosmetics circuit. My father gets some distributors underneath him, in a pyramid structure, and then he is in business.

 

In six months we are rich.

 

Success breeds success. My grandmother and mother discover a wonderful bra, something special about lifting and supporting. My father thinks it’s funny. “Push those titties up and create some cleavage,” he says and demonstrates on my mother, pinching her nipples through the fabric of her blouse, then squeezing her breasts together so that a dark line appears where her flesh meets. He laughs.

 

“I’m serious,” she says and slaps his hand away.

 

They prove it to him by selling, door-to-door, over four hundred bras in a week and plop down five thousand dollars on the coffee table. So my father buys a warehouse in downtown Dallas and starts a bra and lingerie business. He puts my grandmother and my mother in charge, president and vice-president. They make more money.

 

I stop giving speeches about positive thinking, and instead start playing with Max, the son of the manager of the huge condominium complex where we live. I go over to Max’s place one day, and he shows me the master key to all the mailboxes in the complex.

 

“Come with me,” he says.

 

***

 

By now my father is driving a Cadillac Eldorado and is making deals, big deals, with men named Donald Duck and Carlos Esposito and Bob McKay. Carlos is married to the daughter of a Costa Rican diplomat, who owns twelve thousand acres. My father and his friends put their heads together and decide to buy Costa Rica. All of it. Start a timber and cattle operation. Clear cut and then have the cattle graze the land.

 

With Carlos, Bob, my grandfather, and my uncle, my father flies down to Costa Rica to scope out the situation. Once in the country, they rent a pilot and a Cessna. The plane is small, though, so only my father, Carlos, Bob, and the pilot can go.

 

They take off. There are miles of hundred foot trees in Costa Rica. The plane dips down low in a valley so they can survey the jungle. Then the pilot tries to nose the plane over a mountain range. My father and Bob and Carlos are looking out the windows, taking lots of pictures—both snapshots and sixteen millimeter. It starts to rain, suddenly, hard, and one of the engines sputters. The pilot doesn’t want to hit the mountain, so he tells them, in a mixture of English and Spanish, to fasten their seatbelts because he is going to try a crash landing. Everybody goes nuts.

 

“Are you crazy?” my father shouts. “We’ll die if we hit those trees.”

 

“We have no choice,” the pilot says. “Better the jungle than the mountain.”

 

***

 

Meanwhile, I am at home, sitting on the bed beside my mother. She is holding a belt in one hand, and she is crying because she does not like to whip me but knows that I must be whipped, and whipped hard, because Max and I threw one hundred and thirty-four mailboxes full of letters, bills, and magazines in the gutter before Max’s father caught us.

 

My mother says, “You know this hurts me to do this, don’t you?”

 

I remain still, look at the belt, a thin red one with a thick gold square buckle I’ve seen her wear many times. Whatever I say will be wrong. Then she is holding on to my arm with one hand and hitting my butt and legs with the belt. She is the hub of the wheel, our connected arms the spoke, and I am rolling in painful circles on the carpet, shrieking for her to stop. The phone rings, but my mother does not answer it. I put my hand out to stop the belt and receive a whop. I scream.

 

“Don’t put it back there if you don’t want it hit,” my mother says calmly.

 

We are in the middle of this when my grandmother opens the door. Her face is sad, her eyes bloodshot, and it is clear she has been crying.

 

For me, I believe.

 

My mother stops with the belt and I feel overwhelming love and gratitude for my grandmother, this woman with white cotton candy for hair.

 

She says, “Laura, Neil’s plane has crashed.”

 

***

 

When my father regains consciousness, he discovers three things more or less simultaneously: one, he is alive; two, his ribs are probably broken and his back and arms lacerated; and, three, it is incredibly humid and dark. He calls out for Carlos, Bob, and the pilot, and hears, about ten feet away, the voice of the pilot, gibbering in Spanish. In the dark, he tries to dislodge himself from his seat, but when he stands the pain in his ribs stabs him and he only feels a white-hot flash in his head before he topples over.

 

***

 

My uncle stays to help the search party while my grandfather immediately flies back from Costa Rica to comfort us and to tell us the brutal truth of the situation. There are rescue crews searching, but, quite frankly, there is very little chance—one in a thousand—of even finding the plane in such impenetrable forests, and even less chance of survival. My grandfather tells us that a DC10 crashed in the jungles several years ago and no one even found the plane. My mother begins to sob uncontrollably, keening, but my grandmother, a Sun Belt Baptist and sometime reader of fortunes, looks my grandfather in the face and calmly tells him, “Neil will not die young. I know it.” We turn to her, expectantly.

 

We believe her, though she will be wrong.

 

~top~