A short and sweet story halfway through the collection, “Knock Out the Heartlights So We Can Glow,” shows Cross-Smith at her best. Complete in one paragraph, a woman named Exie wanders the aisles of her safe spaces, an all-night grocery store, touching and replacing items. She later tries to explain her feelings to her husband: “Reminded him of that morning after church when her hair was baptism-wet. How she sat at the kitchen table, born again, drowning in the sunlight. Her husband was a good man and she loved him, but he didn’t know how to be special, how to glow. She said it was pretty simple and she’d teach him. There was no big secret. You just had to let the things in your heart get real dark first.”
The story has flashes of the world-weary and devastating, bottomless sadness tempered with the redemption found in day-to-day life. This is short fiction that packs a wallop.
The grocery store produce section sets the stage for another charmer called “Two Cherries Under a Lavender Moon,” a love story about Henry and Astrid framed by cabbage, zucchini and strawberries. Cute but not cloying, the story’s hopefulness is as warm as a cup of hot cocoa. “The light in her heart flickered on, the loneliness scattering to the corners.”
Engagingly, certain characters reappear throughout multiple stories, allowing readers to get to know them across decades. One of these characters is Dolly, bless her heart, who reappears as a suburban housewife who has a sexually charged encounter with her husband’s coworker.
In “The Great Barrier Reef is Dying but So Are We,” Adam performs in a play that requires him to kiss a former girlfriend from 20 years ago onstage. The kiss ignites jealousy in his partner, Minnie, a cello player who keeps a secret about a fellow musician well-disguised. Later, “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” gives us scenes from Adam and Caitriona’s actual play, with a perfumed, white-dressed Minnie sitting in the front row. Her presence is a distraction noted internally by both performers as stage directions cleverly describe the play within a play. The story offers a deeper perspective into the tensions and rivalries growing between Minnie and Adam that illuminates the events in “The Great Barrier Reef is Dying but So Are We.”
Exploring the complexities of a relationship facing grief is the subject of two stories, “Chateau Marmont, Champagne, Chanel” and “California, Keep Us.” A couple tries to escape their sadness through stays at posh hotels after losing a child. Highly charged sexuality mixes with denial, fear and uncertainty to paint a portrait of a modern man and a vulnerable woman that is as believable as it is poignant.
Teenage girls and their friendships take center stage in several stories. In “Winona Forever” we meet Crystal and Heather, best friends mourning the death of Crystal’s sister Amber, a Winona Ryder lookalike. Filled with details that spark memories of sleepovers, late night tears and fruity lip gloss kisses, there’s also enough of a “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Joyce Carol Oates feel to imply danger ahead. When they meet again years later, their bond transcends the anxiety of flying and parenting. What Crystal calls “girl gravity” tethers her to the ground.
Cross-Smith’s exuberance shines through in these stories. In an afterword of sorts titled “Inspirations,” she lists an epically diverse array of influences ranging from Jesus Christ and R.E.M. to Anne Hathaway and Anne Sexton. It’s easy to see more than a dash of everything good in these entertaining, spirited tales.
‘So We Can Glow’
by Leesa Cross-Smith
Grand Central Publishing
238 pages, $26