Please Come Back to Me by Jessica Treadway
Please Come Back to Me is the title of the novella that ends this collection of heartwrenching short stories, and it’s also an apt title for the entire book by Jessica Treadway, which examines the loneliness of people who aren’t alone. This collection, which won the 2009 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, is an example of the power an author has over a reader. Each story is written tersely, examining the lives of ordinary people facing everyday tragedies with a matter-of-fact austerity that draws the reader into the world Treadway has created. The author unflinchingly reveals her protagonists’ dark secrets and inner struggles, from a woman’s fleeting impulse to smother her colicky baby, a man’s clandestine meeting with the woman he thinks he maybe should have married instead of his wife, to another woman’s inability to forgive her husband after he accidentally kills a pedestrian while driving drunk. Many of the stories deal with relationships among family, and while this subject matter could place the collection among the sentimental odes to parenthood that grace so many bookstore shelves, Treadway avoids this trap by looking unsparingly into her characters’ emotions, lingering over the moments of truth revealed during difficult conversations and isolating realizations.
The collection begins with “The Nurse and the Black Lagoon,” a story about a troubled teen whose parents refuse to believe that their son needs help. When Brian sets a local playground on fire, his parents are forced to acknowledge his state. Mercifully, the punishment for his crime is probation and a set of therapy sessions, rather than time in a juvenile detention center. The therapy sessions involve the entire family, forcing them to look into their past in a way they never considered possible. Brian’s mother Irene reflects upon a situation her daughter remembers as an early sign that Brian wasn’t stable, realizing that “It hadn’t made sense to Irene at the time, and she had forgotten about it instantly upon realizing that it didn’t make sense. That moment -- the one just before forgetting -- was the one she found herself in now.” Irene’s inability to cope with her children’s emotions is rendered beautifully in Treadway’s story, as is her almost willful sense of denial. Treadway views this dysfunctional family at a short distance; close enough to feel the characters’ pain, but far enough away to see the error of their ways. Treadway doesn’t pass judgment on these people, though, nor does she mold them into martyrs or tragic heroes. These characters are simply people, making choices that they are sometimes not proud of, but living their lives as best they can.
Another standout story that centers around a family’s collective experience with denial is “Testimony,” an unsettling tale of two twenty-something sisters who are returning home for a visit. Tillie is a new mother, and has recently told her older sister Maxine that their father raped her when she was a child. Maxine refuses to believe this, and the tension between the sisters is palpable while they both bury this disagreement during their visit. Tillie chooses not to confront their father, explaining to Maxine, “I don’t see him that much. He’ll be dead someday, and until then I can put up with him on holidays and whatever. I don’t want to do that to Mom. It would kill her, and besides, she wouldn’t believe me.”
Denial and repression are clearly family traits, which the story continues to reveal as it follows Maxine as she reflects on her past and visits with her father, who she now sees in an entirely new, hazily sinister light, despite her intentions to ignore her sister’s theories. While this conflict is certainly enough to fill a story, Maxine’s past is also filled with her own struggles, which don’t go unnoticed even next to her sister’s dramatic revelation. In the eighth grade, Maxine had a growth in her brain -- a benign lump on her frontal lobe that she still refers to as simply a “growth,” liking the attention this vague word brings with its hint at a serious tumor. When Maxine hesitantly joins a church and is asked to give a testimony in front of the congregation, her habitually exaggerated medical history finds its way into her speech. Through this slightly fictionalized account of her past and Maxine’s changing relationship with her sister and parents, we see another woman, like Irene, who lives in a world of her own creation, who desperately tries to see herself and her loved ones as the people she wants them to be.
Even in the stories where communication isn’t the major obstacle between characters, Treadway shows that a true connection between two people is nearly impossible. In the title novella, Dorrie and her husband Chris find their lives cruelly interrupted when Chris, who is not yet 30, finally succumbs to his wife’s pleading to get a suspicious mole looked at, which turns out to be a quickly metastasizing skin cancer that will probably kill him within a year. Dorrie clings to her weakening husband, without whom she doesn’t recognize herself, and in a not-so-coincidental turn of events, she becomes pregnant, and the baby is born just days before Chris dies. The story follows Dorrie as she raises her son to adulthood, searching for a sign that her husband is still around in some tangible way, earthly or spiritual. The story is every bit as sad as it sounds, but somehow it isn’t hopeless. Dorrie’s love for her husband and her son are reflected in her relationships with family and friends, and while her ache for her missing partner never abates, she manages to keep functioning; there’s simply no other option, since her life doesn’t end with Chris’s as she thought it might.
Each of the eight stories in this collection stands on its own, but together, this assemblage of portraits of strikingly raw humans provides a depth of feeling and detail that will keep the reader captivated and longing to observe these characters for just a bit longer. The stories alternately capture brief scenes in a life or longer consecutive stretches, following a character through several stages of life, and in each format, the story manages to convey a complexity that belies the simplicity of the author’s prose. The collection may not be filled with an excess of drama and excitement, but the quiet strength and dark humor these characters emanate as they display varying degrees of grace in the face of their individual struggles will stay with the reader long after the last page is turned.
Please Come Back to Me by Jessica Treadway
University of Georgia Press