Strange things are happening in Ampersand, Mass. (Keyhole Press). In this collection of short stories by William Walsh, there is pornography, amnesia, obsession, a real life muse, a cross-eyed teddy bear, shoplifting, and a barber running from heart disease. These tales run the gamut from fantastical and bizarre to sweet and touching to heartbreaking and morose. Sounds like life—like most towns, big or small. But in his unique point of view, Walsh unveils relationships that are familiar, and yet, not quite right—a twist or oddity that makes these tales his own.
Here’s an example of how Walsh works in the everyday situations, the mundane experiences and thoughts that we can all relate to, from the story “Substitute”:
“And every year the kids are the same, but different. Every year there’s the kid who knows swears, the kid that can’t learn, the class clown, the bully and his favorite target, the sweet girl, the Romeo, the apple-bringer, the fat kid, the daydreamer, the kid that might be a genius.”
Whether you were the kid that was happy to share all of the dirty words you heard your father utter in the garage over hammers and swollen fingers, or maybe a teacher, dealing with that group of misfits and eager students, there’s something in there for everybody. And that’s part of what keeps you guessing in this collection. One moment you’re getting exactly what you expect, and the next, something quite different.
Such as the story, “The Apple on Your Head.” In this story there’s an overriding sense of something sweet, a family that has adopted a boy from “The Home for Little Peoples,” and yet part of me wonders if he wasn’t kidnapped or stolen. Lillian is his new mother, somebody that means well, but is rather absentminded. Mr. Paul always comes home from work tired and grumpy and seeks out his recliner without any resistance. Fanny, the boy’s new sister, is a mixture of trouble and kindness. This paragraph gives us some clues to our protagonist’s past. The boy has a bad case of amnesia:
“After two weeks Lillian stops making your scrapbook because there aren’t any more stories about you in the Ampersand Mirror. The last two stories don’t even have your picture. Lillian wonders if the stories about you have stopped in newspapers in other states. But she says that pretty soon there will be a milk carton with you on it.”
This is part of the genius of Walsh. Fanny has arrows and shoots apples off of the little boy’s head. But is she showing off, being inclusive, or is she just dangerous and out of control? She shows him her boobs, when they are in the woods, what she calls her “bug bites,” and they even watch dirty movies at night. Part of you mumbles to yourself that we all played doctor as a kid, right? But another part of you realizes that there is some sort of abuse going on here, and a sense of unease and discomfort washes over you as the story unfolds. Fanny is supposed to be in the eighth grade, but maybe as old as the tenth, as she’s home schooled, but the boy isn’t quite sure. Either way, there is tension. Take the last line of the story, as Fanny talks to the boy about the apples, and her shooting them off of his head, the current fruit stuck to a tree:
“‘We’ll play this game again,’ she says, ‘Every day until you remember. Or until I miss the apple.’”
But the boy is remembering. Something is coming back to him, memories of his past leaking through. But are these memories of a better time? Or maybe, a past that should be left alone—maybe he’s better off now:
“Fanny looks at you closely. She can’t see that you have changed. You have memories now. You have a mother. You remember taking a bath in the kitchen sink and the lights went out. You sat in the sink in the dark, and the water got cold, and you could hear that your mother was crying in another room.”
Either way, the story has a weight to it, and it leaves you feeling as if you should be helping him, as you witness something dark and certain to end in disaster.
Walsh is not without a sense of humor though. In his story, “Mr. and Mrs. Abbott and Costello,” he shows us a couple that have their own way with dealing with life. They’re about to get married, and stage their dress rehearsal with drama and flamboyance:
“I had a noose around my neck and clasped to my left leg was a papier-mâché ball and chain. Karen knelt beside me on the altar wearing a dunce cap and a full-body chastity belt that she’d made from an old plastic laundry basket. We were both a little nervous, knowing that we would become husband and wife the next morning, but we were determined to have fun with the rehearsal.”
It takes a certain couple to plan a moment like that. When the husband starts to notice that he has rocks falling out of his ears, hard bits of yellow and black, they go to see a doctor. Understandably, he gets worried about this development, and doesn’t think it’s funny that all she can do is joke about it. Eventually he realizes that this is who she is, who they are together, and he relaxes, stops worrying and ends the story with this lighthearted moment:
“When I wake up, it’s past midnight and Karen’s not in bed beside me. I find her asleep on the sofa. The television is on with the sound down low—one of the Gilligan’s Island episodes that they did in black and white. Remembering how humorless I had sounded earlier when I told her she had to learn how to be serious, I go into the kitchen and run warm water into a large mixing bowl. I’m careful not to spill any as I carry it into the living room.
Karen has a funny expression on her face. Her chin is down and her mouth is open just a little. It’s almost a smile. I laugh quietly as I place her hand in the warm water and wait.”
But the most complicated, compelling and touching story of the collection has to be “Murphy Bed.” It’s also the longest, by far, at thirty-two pages. Our protagonist, Jay, is a bit of a mess—an ex-con with a history of mistreating dogs. It doesn’t matter that he claims that killing that first dog was an accident—that the rock thrown as a child was only done so in self-defense. He makes bad decisions—the wrong women, the wrong ways to spend his free time, and a sordid career in pornography collage work. That’s right, pornography collages, as witnessed by some of his roommates at Transition House, his first stop after jail:
“They inspect the collage Jay’s working on. Female torsos, backs and fronts, clipped at the neck and knees. No faces. No feet. No hands. Tim stares at the small pile of heads. Roy sticks his nose into the jar of rubber cement and inhales deeply.”
This seems to be a signature of Walsh—pairing the dark with the inspired. What Jay creates may just be a fancy way for his clients to get off, but there’s a certain beauty in the way he cares about the models and tries to represent them in an artistic and flattering way. Even if, in this instance, the models are reduced to limbless flesh.
Jay is brought down by a beautiful siren named Val who lures him into a relationship that he knows, in time, is not healthy, or honest. But she’s attractive, way beyond the kind of woman he should be able to seduce:
“Jay had an idea that Val was using him even before she presented her plan to torch the kennel. He wasn’t stupid. She was way too pretty to be spending all her time with someone like him. He wanted to trust her, but she seemed to be keeping something from him. Exactly what she was holding back, he couldn’t have said. He just felt she was moving things along with him according to a script that she’d worked out beforehand.
It was like she had materialized out of one of his fantasies. She had the most amazing shape. Her breasts were large for her frame, and her stomach was flat and firm. She worked out a lot. She dressed herself to show off what she had. Tight pants, mini dresses, cut off t-shirts. She liked to undress slowly for Jay and pose for him before sex.”
Jay is not the first man to be used by a beautiful woman. Eventually, she turns on him, after the kennel fire goes wrong—Jay rushing in to rescue the dogs, the insurance money that Val is seeking, her only motivation. Jay goes to jail, where his only plan is to avoid being raped. In the end, even that goal fails miserably.
Jay finds a woman, Ann, and starts getting close to her and her daughter Dot. In fact, that is how the story opens, with Jay taking pictures of Ann to use in his collage work. Over time Jay nurses a sick dog, becomes closer to the girl, and meets Ann’s mother. It dissolves into normalcy, something that many people spend their lifetime trying to find. What do we make of Jay, his actions, his career? It’s hard to say. Haven’t we all made mistakes, done things that have gotten us in trouble, and yet, grown and learned and evolved? Hopefully.
William Walsh, in his collection of stories, Ampersand, Mass., presents us with unique situations in which to spend some time, to consider our own histories and motivations, and to witness the eternal struggle of a handful of miscreants, misfits, and delinquents. Some learn from their mistakes and become better people. Some never learn, and are surely fated to live a life of degradation and failure. But whatever the outcome, Walsh elicits powerful emotions, and leaves us with haunting imagery of these lives unfolding in front of us.