When you wander around the desert looking for trouble, searching for an escape, sometimes you find it. In Brian Allen Carr’s powerful collection of short fiction, Short Bus, characters drift through small towns in Texas and Mexico, engulfing these border stories as if huffing paint: Lost, disoriented, with questionable motivations and histories. Carr is able to weave into these adventures the heartbreak, the buried love and intimacy that is sought in the shadows, and then to leave us laughing, shaking our head, and wincing at the pain and suffering we have witnessed, wishing somehow that we could undo it. A boy loses his hand and his father contemplates drowning him. A younger brother considers setting his face on fire in order to gain the sympathy and attention that his older brother gets. A husband questions his pregnant wife’s faithfulness, drawing tiny moustaches on the x-rays of the fetus. It all unfolds under the stifling sun, shadows cast in every direction.
Carr creates vivid landscapes that are dotted with sharp details, every rotten board and rusty nail a sign of something more, something larger—the loss and exhaustion of a people that have given up rippling on the surface. From “Over the Border”:
“Whores. Oh, the whores. Their bodies beaten, drained like used batteries, so their forms held, but something in the eyes, a vacuous swallow of light rather than a twinkle, and a looseness of skin, so their bones seemed far away even as you stood beside them and eyes their smiles. They leaned in doorways to rooms that opened to the street, on either side, and the sun dipped toward an orange colored west, and a graying east, so the rooms, their pale light spilling, like twin strands of dirty Christmas lights pulled tight across a bed of dust.”
Carr’s characters are not whole and they are not framed here on their best days. No, they are spinning out of control, addicted and fractured, skittering about looking for a safe place to land, to nod off and rest. In “Whisper to Scar” we get a sense of the kind of mothers you’ll find in this collection:
“His mother didn’t find him for hours. She was probably out with her boyfriend. Huffing paint. Snorting meth. Videotaping sex in some basement. She’s like that. A small town fiend. Shoulders that scrape up through her flesh. Gums receding. Pimples. Tattoos. Stringy unwashed hair and cigarette breath. This was back when things were good for her. This was back when she saw still a waitress at Waffle House.”
When working at the Waffle House is the pinnacle of your career, things are probably not going that well.
Rooted in lives that spin out of control, that have gone off the tracks never to get back on again, is the suspicion that things didn’t have to be like this, that life wasn’t always so difficult. There were good times, once, and maybe they can be found again. There is a memory of civility, of meals eaten while sitting around the table, conversations that didn’t end with a fork embedded in somebody’s forearm. Life used to be normal and happy. But it didn’t stay that way. From “Hot Mess”:
“My father used to ask at the dinner table if we needed water.
‘Water?’ he’d say and pass the rolls. ‘Ice water?’ Then send the greens. ‘Cold water?’ And the butter would go clockwise. ‘Need water?’ Bread across the table.
My father set my brother’s face on fire.”
“My mother smoked three packs a day until the day of her diagnosis. In every old picture of her there’s a cigarette between her lips, or she’s reaching for an ashtray. She smoked so much that the walls in the house turned from yellow to green. So much my elementary teachers asked me if I smoked, because the stench followed me on my clothes wherever I’d go. In all my memories smoke pours from her smile. I used to think my mother made the clouds.”
There is a sweetness buried in here, a nostalgia. Carr’s characters are not all damaged beyond repair, without any redeeming value or flickering hope for better days. In fact, in the title story, “Short Bus”, we follow a teacher with a questionable history who is lured into the life of the handicapped children he teaches. He is softened by Marisol—an essentially catatonic girl—who spends her days in a wheelchair, eyes darting about, drool dribbling down her chin. But people are drawn to her—they whisper their secrets in her ear, and in a moment of great charity, the protagonist hires a cellist to play for Marisol, and the musician is honored by her simple beauty, the way the music seems to be meant for only her.
And this collection is not without humor either. When the aforementioned teacher takes his ragtag classroom of special needs students on a mission to rob a bank in order to keep Marisol from being kicked out of their school, , things get out of hand quickly. Tthe dialog and breakdown of the mission is a slow build-up to the inevitable failure, the break-dancing Pappi pointing his fingers like guns as he gets his groove on, the muscled assistant, Rocky, slowly morphing into The Rock, . It is a pair of scissors ultimately that ultimately dooming dooms the noble crime in progress, forcing our hero to regroup and reconsider.
What Brian Allen Carr has done with this collection of short stories is create a world where betrayal and lies are only the beginning of relationships, distorting expectations but not erasing all hope. In Short Bus we are treated to a number of tragedies and dysfunctional relationships, the sun beating down on us as we search for water and relief, as we laugh at moments with our hands over our mouths and hope for outcomes that are nearly impossible. Somewhere in the lush, hypnotic prose and campfire tales of urban legends there is a heart beating, urging us on, the solutions to all our problems waiting for us just over the distant horizon.