I have the answer, p.1

I Have the Answer, page 1


I Have the Answer

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I Have the Answer

  Advance praise for I Have the Answer

  “With this surprising collection of stories set mostly in Michigan, Kelly Fordon takes her place among our most compassionate, insightful, and wry observers of contemporary American life. These are stories of mothers and daughters, wives and widows, rendered in prose that is at once poetic and plainspoken, with genuine heart and a connoisseur’s eye for the absurd.”

  —Will Allison, contributing editor at One Story Magazine

  “Like all bold, transcendent fiction, the stories in I Have the Answer end up answering intimate conundrums about love, identity, and relationships with ever more complicated questions. Fordon’s characters don’t seek to understand their lives so much as find a way to tell a different story about both the past and the future. Vanished husbands are re-imagined as pale images of the men they once were. Teens on the cusp of adulthood grapple with phantom limbs and the true meaning of exorcism and faith. To their skeptics’ surprise, ‘crazy’ characters who claim to have all the answers actually prove they do. Throughout these stories, Fordon’s sly humor about middle-class perks—Costco, grocery delivery services, trendy psychotherapy, binge shopping—bind together the women who both rue and rely upon these props. Fordon’s deft, lyrical writing and gentle yet pointed comedy create endearing, realistic characters looking for the very answers the reader hopes to find.”

  —Laura Hulthen Thomas, author of States of Motion (Wayne State University Press, 2017)

  “In Fordon’s gripping collection of stories about characters on the edge, we witness what happens when life deals a blow—divorce, addiction, empty nests, dementia, death—and they are forced to face the biggest unknown: themselves. In each pitch-perfect story, Fordon takes us to the precipice where trauma and triumph are equal possibilities. The people in these stories are so hauntingly real that long after I put down this book, I found myself wondering what became of them.”

  —Desiree Cooper, author of Know the Mother (Wayne State University Press, 2016)

  “Kelly Fordon’s I Have the Answer is a remarkable, penetrating, and moving collection that explores what it means to be a good neighbor, a good parent, a good spouse, and a good human being. From New Guinea during the Second World War to suburban Michigan of today, Fordon maps the contours of the heart with an exquisite delicacy and a generosity of spirit entirely unequaled in American fiction. Rare is the author who can bring so much genuine compassion to her characters, despite all of their foibles and flaws, and rarer still the writer who can entertain us immensely as we follow her beloved creations. I Have the Answer exudes emotional truths, as certain as they are surprising, on every page.”

  —Jacob M. Appel, author of Millard Salter’s Last Day

  “In a narrative voice that is stunning and pristine, Kelly Fordon’s I Have the Answer presents characters who suffer in a self-made darkness of secrets, desires, and longing. While going through the motions of their suburban lives, they are at the mercy of the unraveling of normalcy. In each story, we are reminded that underneath the facade of having it all, nothing is simple or easy.”

  —Melissa Grunow, author of I Don’t Belong Here

  “Fordon’s stories hold up a mirror to our shared humanity, breathing three-dimensional life into her characters through a rotating prism of joy, tragedy, triumph, and heartbreak. This collection joins the ranks of such illustrious contemporary short story writers as Alice Munro, Jeffrey Eugenides, James Salter, and Aimee Bender.”

  —R. J. Fox, author Love & Vodka, Awaiting Identification, and Tales from the Dork Side

  “What a great collection! Again and again, Kelly Fordon’s characters charm and disarm us as they face death, divorce, the departure of a maddening child, a diagnosis of dementia, and even molestation. As the world crumbles, they must ask themselves the question, How do I live now? In these big-hearted stories, the answer is to be found in life itself, in living as an act of courage, and living as an art form. Like Lorrie Moore, Fordon proves that comedy is a worthy opponent of tragedy. Times are hard—they’re always hard—so read this book and you’ll feel better!”

  —Bonnie Jo Campbell, author of Mothers, Tell Your Daughters

  “Fordon’s talent is powerful, unmissable. Her stories are absurd and also deeply true. She can shift from amusing to heartbreaking in a moment and leave you with goose bumps. Whether it is a war story relayed by an Alzheimer’s sufferer, or a reluctant therapy group member trying to expose a phony—these stories might make you cry but they’ll make you laugh first.”

  —Emily Schultz, author of Little Threats

  “I followed Kelly Fordon’s characters with love and tears through their ‘lifetime of drift’ until they connected emotional dots and arrived at an answer that allowed them to summon their internal superhero with all the clarity and energy at their command. These are stories of hope.”

  —Lolita Hernandez, author of Making Callaloo in Detroit (Wayne State University Press, 2014) and Autopsy of an Engine and Other Stories from the Cadillac Plant

  “Kelly Fordon is a smart and generous writer, and her stories are full of perception, wit, intelligence, and a startling visionary air. This is a collection that engages from first page to last.”

  —Fred Leebron, author of Six Figures and Welcome to Christiania

  I Have the Answer

  Made in Michigan Writers Series

  General Editors

  Michael Delp, Interlochen Center for the Arts

  M. L. Liebler, Wayne State University

  A complete listing of the books in this series can be found online at wsupress.wayne.edu

  I Have the Answer

  stories by

  Kelly Fordon

  Wayne State University Press


  © 2020 by Kelly Fordon. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without formal permission.

  ISBN 978-0-8143-4752-2 (paperback)

  ISBN 978-0-8143-4753-9 (e-book)

  Library of Congress Control Number: 2019954086

  Publication of this book was made possible by a generous gift from The Meijer Foundation. This work is supported in part by an award from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.

  Wayne State University Press

  Leonard N. Simons Building

  4809 Woodward Avenue

  Detroit, Michigan 48201-1309

  Visit us online at wsupress.wayne.edu

  For my father,

  Bill Stanton (1924–2002)


  The Shorebirds and the Shaman

  Jungle Life

  The Devil’s Proof

  Get a Grip!

  Tell Them I’m Happy Now

  How It Passed

  Where’s the Baby?

  The Phantom Arm

  The Visit: Summer 1976


  In the Doghouse

  Superman at Hogback Ridge

  Why Did I Ever Think This Was a Good Idea?


  There are more things in heaven and earth . . .

  —Hamlet (1.5.167–68), Hamlet to Horatio

  The Shorebirds and the Shaman

  Corinne’s husband, Ethan, died in his sleep. Right before bed, they’d had one of their rote conversations—the same one they had every night.

  “What time should I get up?” Ethan was sitting on his side of the bed with his back to Corinne, fumbling with the alarm clock on his ancient phone. “Should I get up for yoga or sleep in?” He had just retired from thirty years as a high school math teacher and loved the fact that he suddenly had options.

  “Blah, blah, blah,” Corinne said. “Why do you ask me that every single night as if I actually care when you get up?” Though it sounded aw
ful in the retelling, she’d said this in a playful tone. They chided each other. That was their shtick.

  “I’ve read sleep is as important as exercise. Maybe I should just rest.”

  “Well, you lucked out, Iron Man. Tomorrow is Thursday. They have spinning not yoga.”

  “Bonus!” He set the phone down on the nightstand and lay back down. “That’s the best news I’ve heard all week.”

  Six months later, Corinne could count on one hand the times she’d left the house. She worked remotely as a web designer, so getting dressed was optional. Now she ordered household items from Amazon and food from a local grocery delivery service. She communicated with the shoppers via text and asked them to drop the bags on the front stoop. Days were spent prone on the couch staring at her screen or the ceiling while listening to the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime,” the song that had been playing when she’d met Ethan at a fraternity party their freshman year; both anthem and omen, as it turned out.

  Their son, Scott, was still in college, and he’d reluctantly returned to school two weeks after the funeral at Corinne’s behest. It was tragic to lose one’s fifty-five-year-old father, but Corinne couldn’t think of a better place to drown one’s sorrows than a frat house.

  Good one, Ethan would have said.

  Corinne had smiled and spoken in complete sentences while Scott was home, and she was still able to muster up a chipper persona every time he returned for the weekend or for a holiday, but she discouraged frequent visits because maintaining the facade made her feel like a windup toy whose key was rusting out. Plus, she had to pretend that she wasn’t smoking. Thank God for the upstairs porch off her bedroom.

  The most persistent friend—the only one who was still trying to engage on a regular basis—was Anne. Anne was a family therapist who practiced three days a week out of her house. Her husband was high up in his company and had not been seen during daylight for more than a decade. Up until Ethan’s death, Anne had always leaned on Corinne. In fact, the last time Corinne had consulted with Anne on any significant issue was back when Scott was a high school sophomore and had claimed that the pot smell emanating from the basement was Taco Bell takeout. Corinne had been horrified by the pot and the lies and had convinced herself that it was only a matter of time before Scott joined the small band of junkies who hung out next to the highway onramp. When she told Anne, Anne had not talked her off the ledge like a good therapist. Instread she had agreed and handed her rehab pamphlets. It had been Ethan, finally, who’d convinced her that she might be overreacting by reminding her that she was high the night he’d met her back in college.

  “As I recall, you enjoyed your fair share of Taco Bell,” he’d said.

  The saddest part about Ethan’s saving saving saving for retirement was that it hadn’t prevented him from dropping dead four months into it. And now there was no financial reason for Corinne to ever leave the house. One morning when she was lying in bed contemplating a mid-morning nap, or, more accurately, embarking on one, Anne called to see whether she was free to spend the weekend at her cottage on Lake Erie. Because Anne’s daughter had left for Bates in the fall and her husband remained a phantom figure, Anne was always looking for an escape hatch. She was always onto some new scheme—paleo diets, thirty-day yoga bodies, philosophy seminars, master gardener classes. Her problem was her marriage, but instead of facing it, she was like a woman trapped in a dinghy on the high seas, lighting one sparkler after the next.

  In the end, Corinne agreed to the trip because the cottage had been one of her favorite places to visit with Ethan. Plus, it would give her something to tell Scott besides the fact that she had burned through seven seasons of The Walking Dead in one week. I may not have risen from the dead, son, but I made it to Ohio.

  What Anne failed to mention until they’d passed Toledo was the fact that she’d invited other people for the weekend. They were all fellow therapists, she said. The focus of the weekend was a technique therapists referred to as Constellation Work or more formally as Systemic Family Therapy that Anne had decided Corinne might benefit from as well.

  “It’s an alternative therapy,” Anne explained. “Somewhat unconventional, but very cathartic as a grief management tool.”

  “Are you kidding me?” Corinne’s rage was so intense she felt like she might eject from the passenger seat and catapult into space.

  “I knew you’d say no if I told you up front. You have every right to be angry. I promise you don’t have to participate; I just want you to think about it. You can take part in the workshops, or, if you don’t feel like it, just hang out on the beach or take some long walks. Scott and I talked, and we decided we needed to do something drastic to get you out of the house. I’m well aware that I am crossing a line here, but we both want you to recover.”

  Corinne could not even speak. Anne had been talking to her son? On the phone? So much for appearing cheerful during his visits. Apparently, he had not been fooled by her fake smiles. He had found his mother pathetic.

  When they arrived at the cottage, Corinne headed straight out to the deck to smoke a cigarette as a fuck you to Anne, who had posted No Smoking signs on every available surface at her house and cabin.

  The lake was crystalline. Not a cloud in the sky. A line of shorebirds was stationed on the rusty old boat launch. She and Ethan had signed up for a shorebird identification class last year on Belle Isle in Detroit. Now, she peered down at the shorebirds and realized all she had retained were random names: plover, peep, snipe. She could never parse the identifying characteristics: short bills, short legs, short necks, who knew? If Ethan had been there, he would not have been able to help her either. After the second class, he’d turned to her and whispered, “These birds are as indistinguishable as snowflakes.” During the coffee break, they’d snuck out of the class and headed to Rose’s Diner for breakfast instead.

  Way off on the horizon, a freighter glided by, slight as a fingernail file. Back in Detroit on Lake St. Clair, the freighters passed so closely you could see the people on deck. Corinne took a long drag on her cigarette. Ethan had loved visiting Anne’s cottage. Last summer, they’d kayaked all the way to a nature preserve two miles to the east, ignoring Anne’s warning about storms blowing up unexpectedly on the shallowest of the Great Lakes. On their return trip, they’d battled fierce waves. As they were struggling through a particularly brutal stretch, a drone had appeared over their heads—someone on shore checking their precarious status. When they realized what it was, Ethan had been so annoyed that he’d swatted at it with his oar. “Is it here to record our impending demise?”

  When Corinne returned, Anne was standing in the driveway talking to two women who had just pulled up in a white Ford Explorer. The tall, skinny woman with spiky white hair and black glasses held out her hand and said her name was Bryce. The small, portly woman in the grandma sweater and sturdy shoes introduced herself as Bryce’s wife, Gretchen. Anne asked how they had heard about the event, and Bryce said they were “constellation groupies.” They had just opened a center for LGBTQ youth in Cleveland, and they believed Constellation Work might help the kids who had trust issues, which was, Bryce added, just about all of them.

  “You don’t even know these people?” Corinne hissed into Anne’s ear as they headed inside.

  “They’re fellow therapists. Doesn’t mean I know them.”

  “You sure made it sound like they were fellows you knew,” Corinne said.

  “It’s a workshop,” Anne said, as if that explained everything.

  “I would never do this to you,” Corinne said. “Never.”

  Anne didn’t respond for a second. “I would hope that if I were sitting on my couch for months on end and you had tried everything from yoga to barhopping to antiquing and nothing worked, you would not give up on me. You would come up with a plan to save me, no matter the cost to the friendship. At this point, I am more concerned about your well-being than anything else.”

  Before Corinne could respond, An
ne called out to Bryce and Gretchen to follow her up the back staircase. Corinne sat down at the kitchen table.

  “I hope you don’t mind twin beds. That’s all we have in this house,” Anne said to the women as they disappeared up the dark stairwell.

  “I wish we minded, but sadly, it’s not a problem at all,” one of them said.

  At that, Corinne was hit with another memory of her last visit to the cottage. She and Ethan had stayed in that very same room at the top of the stairs. It was a small room: a former servant’s quarter. In the middle of the night, Ethan had tiptoed over to her bed.

  “Just like college,” he’d whispered. When the ancient bed creaked and moaned, threatening collapse, they’d burst into a fit of giggles. At one point, Corinne had slipped between the bed and the wall and Ethan had had to hoist her back up.

  Corinne stared out the kitchen window. Perhaps there was a hotel nearby. She could take a cab and wait out the weekend there. Or she could rent a car and just drive back home.

  While she was considering her options, someone knocked on the kitchen door. She opened it to find a tall, bald man with thick black glasses standing in the vestibule. His cheeks were pink and round. He looked like Silly Putty with glasses. Like the lesbian couple, this man, who said his name was Gerard, appeared to be closing in on seventy. Because Anne was still upstairs with Bryce and Gretchen, Corinne had no choice but to converse with him. As he talked, he stooped with his head cocked to the right, though whether to hear better or look sympathetic, Corinne wasn’t sure. He said he spent a majority of his time counseling sex addicts, and he’d signed up for the weekend because he was burned out.

  “People get stuck,” he said.

  Did he mean the therapists or the sex addicts? And what did sex addicts get stuck in? Ethan would have come up with a zinger for that one. She’d been the straight man; he’d been the comedian. And what is a straight man without a comedic sidekick? A blank slate.

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