Welcome to another installment of If My Book, the Monkeybicycle feature in which authors shed light on their recently released books by comparing them to weird things. This week Alice Kaltman writes about Staggerwing, her debut story collection out now from Tortoise Books.
If Staggerwing were a family, casual observers might use wrong-headed and lazy adjectives to describe it. Words guaranteed to make my book cringe. Words like quirky, zany, dysfunctional. My book has lived in this town for years, but no one really knows it. If they ventured across the overgrown, weedy lawn of my book’s ramshackle crap-fest of a house and shoved open the warped front door with a solid shouldered heave ho, they’d see beyond the pleasantly eccentric demeanor of my book. Some embarrassingly weird shit has gone down which makes it hard for Staggerwing to maintain direct eye contact.
If Staggerwing were a plant in this house that belongs to this family that is also my book, it would be a spectacular begonia. Now lovely, it was grown from a tuber by the “lady of the house”. The lady had a brief surge of enthusiasm for indoor gardening that quickly sputtered out and died. Staggerwing, however, lived on in spite of being abandoned in a bowl of water for six months. The water grew milky, the walls of the bowl, slimy green. My book sprouted little white tentacles, very Little Shop of Horrors. Thanks to Staggerwing, the entire first floor of the house smelled like a fecund Louisiana swamp, not entirely unpleasant, in fact much nicer than the putrid after glow of the ground-floor toilet in need of constant plunging. Eventually the lady shoved Staggerwing in a clay pot full of dirt pilfered from the side yard, secretly hoping it would just die, because she was fucking sick and tired of taking care of everybody and everything in the damn house. But no way José. Instead Staggerwing grew into a cascading, exotic thing with neon orange poofy blooms. Something pure and beautiful of suspicious origins, grown out of benign neglect.
If Staggerwing were a toy belonging to the eight-year-old girl in this family, it would be a cheap plastic doll. My book is shoddily constructed but undeniably adorable with a nice rounded belly and a pageboy haircut. My book also has a charming sprinkle of freckles across its nose and two buck teeth poking out of pink, cherubic lips. If Staggerwing’s head is turned too far it pops off because, like I’ve already said: This ain’t no American Girl Doll. Spontaneous decapitation comes in handy during games like Guillotine or Fatal Car Crash, when Staggerwing plays the role of the girl’s real life torturer, aka her eleven year old brother. My book isn’t baby-bald, nor does it have absurd nippleless breast bumps. It is a stumpy, gender-fluid wee toddler of a book, sometimes a boy, sometimes a girl. It depends on the game. Staggerwing is always at the ready, willing to fill hours with slightly off-color fantasy play, adding spice to days which would otherwise droop with excruciating boredom.
If Staggerwing were the family pet, it would be a rescue mutt loved by everyone, but most adored by the mildly demented grandfather. Before being adopted, my book was repeatedly beaten and nearly starved to death in Aguada, Puerto Rico, where it was saved by a kind-hearted, ex-pat retiree named Rita, originally from Rockaway, Queens. My book is scared shitless by most men (Grandpa excluded), loves women, and tolerates children as long as they aren’t screeching and lunging at my book as if it were a pile of Snickers bars. Staggerwing’s miniature stature, due to early malnutrition, only makes it more winsome. It has one droopy ear with a nicked edge, while the other stands at full alert a la Rin Tin Tin. Staggerwing has scrub brush fur the color of wet cardboard, though there’s a patch near its rump where fur won’t grow and pinkish doggie skin shows through a few measly strands of bristled brown. My book understands everything you say, so watch your mouth, Grandpa. My book will curl up in your lap if you sit still and allow it to sniff your feet, then lick the salt off your shins to make sure you’re not a nasty piece of work. If you pass the test, Staggerwing is yours forever.
Alice Kaltman is the author of the story collection Staggerwing and the forthcoming novel Wavehouse (Summer 2018). Her stories appear in numerous journals, including Hobart, Whiskey Paper, Joyland, and BULL: Men’s Fiction, and in the anthologies The Pleasure You Suffer and On Montauk. Her work has twice been selected as Longform Fiction Picks, and was recently selected as a semifinalist for The Best Small Fictions 2017. Alice lives, writes and surfs in Brooklyn and Montauk, New York. Find out more at alicekaltman.com or follow her on Twitter @alicekaltman.