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 Gwen Goodkin writes about A Place Remote, her new story collection out now from West Virginia University Press.
If A Place Remote were a car it’d be a late 80s Oldsmobile Delta 88 Royale Sedan, navy blue. This was the car my grandpa drove and, for many afternoons when I was in junior high, he picked me up from school and brought me to the various places I needed to be: volleyball practice, a friend’s house, my grandparents’ house, my own house. The car felt enormous inside and my grandpa drove it with all the speed of a koala. I joked that if it weren’t winter I could ride my bike to wherever my destination was and beat him there. Another thing he liked to do in the dead of winter was go to the local drugstore and try on perfume to help him decide what to buy us girls for Christmas. He had a knack for finding the worst ones. I often had to roll down the window at the risk of being pelted with snowflakes just to catch a breath. One Christmas, he gifted me a bottle of Taboo. It was horrible. Now and then he’d ask if I’d worn it and I lied that I had. How I’d like to shake that kid and tell her to wear it – just once, for him.
My grandpa’s car was a safe place. No matter what happened at school, I could be quiet and he wouldn’t press me to talk, he gave me space. Sometimes that’s all a kid needs. Space and quiet so she can decide what she wants to share. My hope is my book gives the reader enough space to think about how its situations and characters apply to her own life. Who the people in the stories remind him of and what happened between them. I guess you could say my book is a nostalgia trip, set in the past before cell phones and Youtube, back when we could sit with ourselves and be comfortable with quiet.
What I know now is that my grandpa understood me. He understood that I’d seen some shit. Well, he’d seen some shit, too. My grandpa came back from World War II with PTSD and an addiction to alcohol, then he quit drinking and shifted his addiction to cigarettes. While he was driving me around after school, the cigarettes were gone, his addition had been shifted to food. He’d steer the car with one hand because he had a big belly that made it hard to drive. He was very particular about what he ate, and thanks to him, I am, too. He used to buy these powdered doughnuts right off the Nickels truck first thing in the morning so he’d get them fresh. They were in a square package that looked like a bigger version of Thomas’ English muffins. The doughnuts were chock full of powered sugar and almost as big as my face. They were so soft, Nickels wouldn’t make them in the summertime because they’d sweat too much in the package and get slick. We missed the doughnuts in the summertime and couldn’t wait til we could eat them again. Maybe that’s part of why they were so good. They weren’t always there at the ready. Like how it is with people. My grandpa isn’t here anymore. He was a decent, hardworking guy who certainly had his faults. But he stepped up when I needed him most, took care of a kid whose dad was gone. This essay isn’t really about my book anymore, is it?
I wish I was back in the huge front seat of my grandpa’s car, cruising at a cool 15 miles per hour, the two of us sitting in the quiet of our own thoughts, our eyes watering from spray after spray of Christmas perfume.
Gwen Goodkin’s stories and essays have been published in literary magazines throughout the United States and beyond. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia and is the recipient of the Folio Editor’s Prize and the John Steinbeck Award for Fiction. Born and raised in Ohio, she now lives in Encinitas, California. Learn more at gwengoodkin.com and follow her on Twitter at @GwenGoodkin.