Lindsay Hunter owes as much to Denis Johnson as she does to Mary Gaitskill. Her short stories, collected in Don’t Kiss Me (FSG Originals) do not hesitate to descend into the primal urges and dark, lusty behaviors that make us all animals at our core, but they also shine a light on the truth, a nugget of goodness at the center of what is quite often a lonely, depraved and tragic journey, one blanketed in a desire to be seen, to be loved—no matter who we are, or what we’ve done. Hunter’s characters work at diners and long to be included, they take care of their children while embracing their shortcomings, they chase boys into cornfields and kiss their best girlfriends, all the while longing to feel special and included.
One of the early stories in this her second short story collection, “Dishes” starts off in typical Lindsay Hunter fashion, setting the stage by showing us the raw recounting of every humble and embarrassing moment—no filter, just a mix of pride and surrender:
“At breakfast my kid practices his ABCs and barfs into his cereal bowl just before Q. My other kid points out how the barf had splashed onto the table in the shape of Oklahoma. I don’t tell him it looks more like Texas, he’s a little kid and if he wants to mistake Texas for Oklahoma it’s no skin off my tit. My husband wipes up the barf and I watch his shorts bunch in his ass.”
There is so much going on here. First, it’s funny, right? Whether you’ve been there a million times before, or this whole scene is a window into what parenthood might look like, the casual retelling, the “no skin off my tit,” summons up laughter. Later, as a chorus through the story, our protagonist keeps saying, “Big girls gotta eat!” She laughs at the fact that she’s overweight, she knows it, and she embraces it. She is who she is. You can almost picture her shrugging her shoulders as she says it. Her son packs her a lunch of nothing but Fruit Roll-Ups, Tootsie Rolls, half of a juice box, and a single Goldfish cracker. It’s funny, it’s sweet—and it’s kind of sad. We go along with the joke, but quite often after the punch line, there is an extended darkness that hangs in the air to remind us that these are people, not jokes—these are real lives, not just there for our amusement. Take the final lines from this same story, “Dishes” and tell me how it feels:
“…a song about a lonely desert wandered starts, I pass tacos pizzas chicken ice cream barbeque. The sky is pink meatblood, is a runny sorbet, the sun is a melting butterscotch, the sky is a dirty plate.”
Not so good, I think.
Another story that does a great job of luring us in with soft memories and sweet adolescence is “Three Things You Should Know About Peggy Paula.” This might be my favorite story in the collection, and since it leads off the book, Lindsay Hunter may agree with me. The first thing we learn is that Peggy works in a diner, where she watches the popular kids come in after games and dances, always in the shadows, picking up lost lipsticks, making them her own, transferring the lust and heady glow that the girls have to her own seduction of the red-headed dishwasher weeks later.
The second things we learn is that “Peggy Paula has a kidney-shaped scar on her lower back from falling backward out an open window backward at a disco.” She went there to meet men, but it was a gay nightclub, so she didn’t have any luck. Tumbling into a dumpster, pissed on by an apologetic blonde boy, this is a memory that she cherishes, even though she was hurt, even robbed by the club goer. The memory she clings to is that he called her special.
The third thing we learn about Peggy Paula is that she is having an affair with a married man who worked at the local video store. Throughout the story we get all of the sweaty moments in back seats, the desperation and grunting, the echo of shut doors as these men use her, and walk away. But what brings the story full circle, what really punches you in the gut are the final lines of the story, after they’ve been caught, what Lindsay Hunter does best—showing us the truth and motivation that drove Peggy to commit these questionable acts:
“…and maybe that’s why she let the man in two nights later, had to see his eyes, had to feel again, and she kept letting the man in, she kept letting the man in, his smell the hair on his chest the delicate skin above his pelvis the muscles in his thighs his calloused hands the shapes of his toes the gold in his eyes the missing molar the mole on his back the heart in his chest the breaths in and out he was alive he was another he was a man and Peggy Paula let him, she let him, because if no one is there to touch you are you even really there?”
If you don’t take a deep breath there, and let out a heavy sigh, nodding your head, maybe tearing up a bit, swallowing your judgment, muttering, “Damn,” under your breath—then maybe you don’t have a heart, just a lump of coal where that pumping, anxious beast should rest.
And the taboo—what about that, the deviant, the sexual, the secrets? That’s another part of what makes Lindsay Hunter such a brilliant writer, her willingness to risk everything on the page, to say what we’re all thinking, to reveal those moments we’d prefer the world never saw. Here are two quick examples.
The first is from “Plans,” where our female lead kisses a teacher, and steals a lipstick, just to see how it feels, to get that rush of adrenaline:
“I wore that lipstick one night when we all met up to swim and it was so dark I let a boy take off my bottoms, the lipstick smeared and greasy all around my mouth and its crayon smell all over the boy, and then I put a ribbon on that lipstick and gave it to Momma for Christmas.”
She likes to cross lines, break rules—stealing, kissing teachers, taking off her pants at the lake, the dirty lipstick now a gift to her mother? “Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?” you might ask. It seems that she does.
And then there is “Me and Gin.” It’s a sweet story on the surface, but just under the bruised flesh is a dysfunctional childhood, parents that are damaged and absent, friendships that are anything but healthy. The opening lines:
“Me and Gin play Lips. This a game where you see how long you can touch lips before you need to scream. Gin always the one screaming first, I guess not always, sometimes I scream first cause I don’t want to seem like no weird lips lover.
Me and Gin’s both girls. See.”
And no, I’m not giving you all of the juicy parts in this review, you’ll have to pick up the book and read it yourself.
When I think of the rabbits in “Summer Massacre,” it immediately reminds me of “Emergency” by the aforementioned Denis Johnson. When I read the slick sex in the back seat of a car in “Three Things You Should Know About Peggy Paula,” I think of the previously cited Mary Gaitskill and the power struggle that is “Romantic Weekend.” When I pause to remember “Plans” and the final words of the boy hovering over our girl when she says, “I ain’t no bitch like your brother called me,” and he answers, as they finish their grunting and heaving, “Ain’t you, he said, ain’t you?” I’m transported to the heartbreak that is the final scene in “Life Expectancy” by Holly Goddard Jones. But whatever other voices flitter about you as you read Don’t Kiss Me, familiar dysfunction, dark roads you’ve been down before, know that Lindsay Hunter is an original, she is fearless, and she will always be a soothsayer—telling stories with heart, compassion, and authority.